Sunday, February 25, 2007

Is it possible to reform the NUS?

I read "How can student politics learn lessons from Lib Dem election victories?" by Alexander Kemp with interest due to our recent NUS elections and upcoming student union elections at Manchester. The success of the Jewish society and Labour Students compared to the past whitewash by Student Respect/the Islamic Society, and an apparent 20% turnout increase since last year (I don't have the exact figures), show that it is possible to stand and indeed to win.

He is entirely true to speak about the lack of interest from Lib Dems at university. We (Lib Dems at Manchester) did not stand any candidates, nor did we send out a message letting people know the NUS elections weren't occurring. I know that I see NUS as almost a unwitting parody of the Monty Python and the Life of Brian revolutionary groups, which coupled with a whipping of delegates ensuring they do not have independence in many votes, makes me lean more towards disaffiliation than reforming from within (and perhaps my general natural distrust of large groupings, whether unions, corporations or government). But my friends in Labour Students at Manchester have told me several times that if the Lib Dems got involved then we could help "rescue" it and make it relevant.

The trouble I see is that if turnout at student union elections is low, how can we expect them to be representative, let alone NUS which is even more distantly linked to the "average" student? Perhaps Lib Dem groups on campuses across the UK would be better served encouraging people to vote and promoting reform such as online voting or referenda, rather than spending effort on targeting the existing politicised student in order to get Lib Dem candidates elected to NUS - especially if, as the claim goes, most students vote Lib Dem in general elections.

In the past I have been pretty strongly against the NUS as a useless, irrelevant talking shop not worth participating in. It is not listened to by the government, it is in financial crisis, and the average student sees it as a group of political careerists, if they know enough about it to have an opinion at all. But with the recent elections here I see my mind changing towards getting involved and helping to make it better. Whether or not I would vote to disaffiliate Manchester from the NUS, I'm not sure.

The question is a good one. Should Lib Dems get involved in NUS and help to reform from within, or is it not worth the effort - they would be more productive making their own student unions relevant to students and encouraging participation in local politics?


Alex Kemp said...

You make some interesting points, but I do wonder whether or not its a little negative to suggest we, as Lib Dems, shouldn't engage at all in the largest student body in the UK, whether we like its current operations or not!

I wouldn't agree that it is not listened to by government, for example. Whilst NUS has suffered key defeats in recent years, perhaps especially on tutition fees and top-up fees, there is much work done in the organisation that is valuable.

Also, bear in mind that NUS has been run by card carrying Labour activists for a long long time, if not as labour students then as 'independents' who 'just happen' to be labour party members. If that was to change, I predict a much healthier NUS.

For example, the Disabled Students' campaign (for which I am the elected officer) has recently won millions of pounds of investment into buses in Manchester to make them accessible to disabled students travelling up and down Oxford Rd. We did this pretty much as a lone lobbying voice, but were effecive in making real change for disabled students across Manchester.

We've also won reform on Disabled Students' allowance which was initially a Tory cock up, followed by a Labour means testing nightmare.

These might, at first glace, seem pretty small victories, but they represent the work of one campaign in NUS, one of the four liberation campaigns in this instance.

I totally agree that NUS is not representative of the average student, but surely that in itself is enough to engage and try and change.

On turnout, again I agree that there is a huge problem with convincing students of the relevance of SU elecions, along with NUS politics. But a quick look here:

tells me that, whilst clearly SU elections aren't great, the problem with voter apathy stretches way outside of the student movement. In the last Manchester City Centre council elections, the turnout was a pathetic 16 per cent.

NUS is what we have, and it is affiliated to by the vast majority of SUs. As Lib Dems, if we don't like it, I think we have to engage to change it. Apart from anything else, I truly believe in NUS as a vehicle for the wider interests of the party - and I think we'd be failing as Lib Dem activists if we didn't engage with the student movement as we have it in an attempt to widen the Lib Dem student vote.

Chris said...

I am impressed with your personal successes and it does go to show that when people put effort in it change can be made - a good argument for reform.

One thing which I would find personally difficult is working with Labour Students or the Jewish society in our own student union elections but running against them for NUS elections. We all agree on local student issues, that there should be a 24 hour library during exam time, for example or that student issues need to be prioritised, but nationally there is a lot more than Manchester's library opening hours to discuss.

The money we give NUS at the moment does not seem to bear itself out with tangible benefits for students at Manchester. Perhaps that is an issue of awareness, but it needs to change somehow. There is no reason why some of the money spent lobbying bus companies to improve disabled access could not come from a campaign run by our union.

We should be sceptical of large organisations and query where our money is going. Reform is a good idea, certainly, but I have to wonder - at the end of the day, we as Manchester are still spending £40,000 annually and tuition fees have increased since 1997, not decreased.

If student unions played a more active role in local politics, making students aware that current MPs for the areas they lived in voted for tuition fees, and that local councillors support them, perhaps that would achieve a better end result. This is something which worked well for Stephen Williams Bristol West, but Gerald Kaufman (Manchester Gorton) has consistently voted in favour of tuition fees despite having almost all halls of residence in the constituency.


Adele said...

Chris there is more issues for students than top up fees. Some, shock of all horrors may even be in favour.

Some may not vote lib dem because of your liberal attitudes towards crime.