The National Union of Students (NUS) has released a “White Paper” which outlines “reforms” to destroy its democratic structures. Unlike a government White Paper, which is public, these proposals are hidden from the vast majority of NUS members. They have been sent only to student union sabbatical officers and NUS full time officers for consultation.
The proposals are divided into a series of “requirements”, based on discussions with student union CEOs and sabbatical officers, designed to “simplify and modernise NUS’ governance and delivery”. Most are designed to separate elections and policy making at conference, including creating a single “NUS manifesto” which will replace individual elected officers’ manifestos in determining campaigns, making officer posts two years long, and replacing motions debates with “consensus building” workshops and seminars plus online ballots before and after National Conference to determine student views. Also proposed is replacing cross-campus delegate elections with a system where student unions decide without a vote who to send to National Conference.
All NUS sections, Liberation groups and Regions Conferences could be merged into caucuses at National Conference. There is no mention of making the already far too short conference any longer to accommodate this. Another proposal is introducing details of the financial or operational impact on NUS or SUs into motions: presumably these “details” will be added by NUS staff!
The governance structures of many SUs mean that the executive body which will reply to the consultation will not be an elected officer or student council, but an unaccountable CEO with vastly different interests to students. The results of the consultation will inform a motion to be put to delegates at National Conference in April. Even then, NUS’s current governance structure means that the only-semielected Trustee Board can overturn any conference vote. Indeed, President Shakira Martin told NUS National Executive (NEC) members at their 6 February meeting that their vote against the 2019-2020 budget — which included scrapping the Trans Campaign, alongside other liberation and sections campaigns — was only symbolic. The Trustee Board had already approved the budget.
The reforms paint a picture of an NGO-like NUS where the already very limited opportunity for rank and file control is almost completely blocked. Officers will be elected not on the basis of the politics in their manifesto but their “skills and experience”, and once elected they will be tied to the single “NUS manifesto”. Bland consensus-formed decisions will drown out dissident political views and marginalised groups. Members won’t be able to debate and vote on motions as a collective and will instead have to choose which smaller “zone” workshop to attend. Management will be given more power to veto motions on bureaucratic technical grounds.
The student left must respond with a completely different vision for NUS. Conference should be longer, not shorter, with more time for political debate and discussion, and with democratic votes, not consensus. Student unions’ delegate entitlements should be much bigger and elected by a cross-campus ballot. NUS need to run outward facing campaigns on a national and regional basis, decided by members at conference, that organise students to fight for their interests and help student unions to organise students. We need to get away from the idea that campaigns, demonstrations and conferences need to cost tens of thousands. NUS training days and events must be free and accessible to all student unions, and control of their content must be given to elected officers. Decision making power must be taken from unelected and highly paid management, including those on the trustee board, and given to National Conference, the NEC and the full time officer team.
We can’t transform NUS without first democratising our Student Unions. This means putting power in the hands of elected officers, not staff, external trustees and CEOs, holding regular, built-for general assemblies and campaigning for Labour to commit to scrapping the Charity Law which makes it difficult for student unions to run political campaigns. NUS must work to get an independent student union set up in every college, school and university, helping students to run campaigns and ensure already existing SUs are independent from college and university management.
The Student Left Network should campaign around this positive programme for a member-led, democratic, grassroots campaigning NUS at National Conference. Student Left Network National Conference on 2-3 March in Sheffield will discuss the NUS reforms and how the left should respond, as well as student union democracy. NUS National Conference will also vote on a motion of no confidence in NUS President Shakira Martin, submitted by Student Left Network members.