The National Union of Students [NUS] announced last week, in a letter to affiliated student unions, that it is on the verge of bankruptcy.
The NUS Group, which includes NUS UK plus NUS Services, the union’s commercial arm, could face a £3 million deficit this year and in future years. “Radical reforms to democratic and corporate structures” which will “drastically simplify and modernise NUS” are to be announced at NUS Conference 2019, which will take place in spring. Student union presidents and Chief Executives will be invited to a “strategic conversation” meeting in late November.
These reforms will likely be gutting. The student left must respond by organising around a democratic programme for NUS that can transform it into a political fighting force that students have real control over, alongside a drive for democratic and autonomous student unions, particularly in Further Education.
We don’t know whether the claims of financial crisis are true. It certainly can’t be campaigning that NUS has spent all its money on. To start, NUS must open its books to a democratically accountable and elected investigation. A lot of money could be saved by cutting pay of senior managers, by not putting NEC members and NUS officers up in the Hilton, and by scrapping pseudo-conferences in expensive venues with no democratic function.
NUS’s democratic structures have already been stripped away by successive governance reviews, the most drastic of which were pushed through in 2007-9 despite opposition from several annual conferences. It now works more like an NGO than a union, with barely any real control by rank-and-file members. NUS Conference is now so short that most motions are never debated, while unions’ delegate entitlements have more than halved in size.
Delegates at 2017 conference stormed the stage in Glasgow venue when it became clear that motions calling for support for abortion rights in Northern Ireland and the decriminalisation of sex work would not be debated, thanks to filibustering from the right. We must demand a longer conference, with the additional “zones conferences” replaced by a second annual conference.
NUS needs to radically expand the delegate entitlement for unions. Decision-making power must be taken from the currently existing semi-elected trustee board and given to the elected National Executive. Highly-paid senior managers who have lots of day-to-day control should be replaced by coordinators on a workers’ wage. Training days and events should be free, accessible and controlled by elected full time officers. Regional organising, with conferences, full-time officers, and campaigns, should be restarted. And the part-time stipend must be returned to the NEC so they can travel the country as organisers, helping activists with campaigns and implementing NUS policy.
Between 2016 and 2017 a string of student unions held referendums on NUS disaffiliation following the election of left-winger Malia Bouattia (whom Workers’ Liberty critically supported) as president and controversies over antisemitic comments. Surrey, Newcastle, Loughborough, Hull and Essex voted to disaffiliate. These campaigns were mainly driven by the non-Labour right, who argued NUS was “too radical” on issues that didn’t concern “the average student”. The left responded by arguing the need to fight campaigns collectively, while the right-wing Labour Students faction which still dominates NUS argued students shouldn’t give up the right to discounted alcohol and free McDonald’s burgers provided by an NUS discount card.
The disaffiliation campaigns were used by the Labour Students faction to stress the narrative that NUS was “in crisis” under a left leadership and needed to resume to normality. In fact, Bouattia’s year in office did little to disturb the “normality” of weak grassroots organising. Since then, under Shakira Martin’s leadership NUS has shifted to the right: it has worked with the Lib Dems and the government’s Office for Students, and blocked a motion on organising a national demonstration for free education from even being discussed at the NEC. It made no effort to support this year’s UCU strike, even showing hostility to the wave of student occupations.
Workers’ Liberty students will be arguing for the Student Left Network which launches itself on 18 November to call for the student left to unite around a democratic programme and left unity charter. The left should call for NUS to weave together and link up student struggles over rent, precarious work, climate change and mental health services and make them part of a programme it campaigns around, alongside mobilising students alongside the labour movement around broader issues such as on Brexit and migrants’ rights, anti-fascism, for a living wage and end to zero hour contracts. We need to remake and reshape the student left.