But as I left Conference, travelling on the train through Cheshire, I had a moment of quiet to think to myself and reflect. It was clear that this year’s Conference had, for me, been the best one yet. But that was nothing to do with the policy, elections, or procedure. I was because I met some superb people. I spoke with fellow centre-right students who want to have a voice in their National Union, and who have inspired me to work harder to get more people involved. I spoke to those who have been oppressed and side-lined by their Student Union’s, who yearn for a free and fair system, and who live to make our society a more open and democratic place. And I spoke to Union Officers, who spend their days working for the students that voted for them, and are coming up with brilliant new ideas to support their constituents.
Judging by social media many other people had a similar experience. There are statuses talking about how excellent the event was because of the brilliant people they met. They then go on to talk about how they feel part of a movement, and add some generic statement about how great the NUS is.
The problem is this logic is flawed. There are, indeed, many wonderful and inspiring people at NUS Conference, representing their Student Unions. But how does collecting all these people together in one place make the institution of NUS a worthy one? You simply cannot judge NUS from Conference – it’s like taking a view on Parliamentary democracy having only seen the Queen’s Speech.
What can be judged from Conference is how the NUS conducts itself. How can the individual engage, debate, and change the organisation? How well does the National Executive, and Conference, speak for the 7 million students affiliated?
To answer these questions, I can only give you my personal experiences. Firstly, I still had to share a Conference Hall with people who have publically accused me of being in favour of the murder of disabled people. Because Im a Conservative. So already I’m feeling welcome. We had issues where policy lapse motions were presented, but we were not able to see the text of what we were debating. We were voting blind. Motions were passed, opposing UKIP. Imagine what it feels like to be a UKIP student now – do you feel empowered by your National Union that so publically opposes you?
But in contrast, we saw the power of a speech. The ability of someone to stand up, from nowhere, with no hope, and completely revolutionise the future of our movement. His name was Piers Telemacque, the outsider in the election for VP Society and Citizenship. I think I am right in saying he is from the Student Broad Left faction. But that didn’t matter. He rose and gave an impassioned speech, about what he’d done and achieved, followed by his vision for the future. His speech gripped the crowd, all of them; I know of several centre-right students who voted for him regardless of his politics. It was amazing to see this happening – and to know that the spoken word still wields great power.
But with great power, comes great responsibility. Piers showed us the difference a speech can make. Once you recognise this, you realise how much power the Chair has – A speech can win a vote, but it can also loose many more. And unfortunately we saw this power used. When it came to the vote on positive discrimination for women within NUS committees, even though there were many more women wishing to give speeches in opposition than men, men were time and again picked to speak. Men speaking against reserved places for women = game over for the opposition.
The joys of the biased chair (who is a member of the National Executive) continued the next day, when, on an uncontroversial motion regarding the nomination process for the VP FE and VP HE, the Chair constantly granted extra rounds of speeches. This meant that later motions on opening up NUS, increasing transparency and the rights of individuals to hold their National representatives to account, never got heard. And on those few motions that did get discussed during that session, members of the National Executive were chosen time and again to speak, to the loss of ordinary delegates.
Piers showed us that you can make a real difference at Conference. But he had a right to stand on that stage and speak his mind, as a candidate in the election. The fact is, there is no equality in access to the podium, and if you can’t get to the podium, you can’t persuade people, and so nothing will change. I spoke on 2 motions, and that was because the Chair couldn’t pick anyone else above me – my hand was the only one in the air.
So delegates, students, whoever you may be – don’t fall for the old trick of having a great experience at Conference, meeting lots of nice people, and therefore thinking all is well with the National Union of Students. Look deeper. What did you change? What could you change? I’ve been running TheyWorkForStudents for over 3 years now. As Ive mentioned before, the NUS aren’t the biggest fan, but I worked hard, put in hundreds of hours of works, and pounds from my own pocket. But they will not listen. I have tried the ‘change it from the inside’ approach – they just look and laugh at me.
The organisation is broken. We still need a body that can represent us nationally, but not like this. I want an NUS that welcomes every student, regardless of their background, and enables them to change both their surrounds, and the NUS itself. I want an NUS that actually speaks on the issues that students have concerns about – one that talks more of education, and less about opposing UKIP and the 5:1 pay ratio.
These are basic things, but I know they are what students want of their National Union, and so I have fought for them. And I went to NUS Conference, but I didn’t have a voice. So I built TheyWorkForStudents, and they put it down and shut me out. So what now?
What would the NUS recommend to someone who had longstanding concerns with their employer, who tried to politely present them but was ignored; who then built a campaign around their ideas, which was rejected and discredited; who tried to debate and discuss, but had no voice. They would say strike.
And so that is what we must do. Strike. Strike on our payment to the NUS.
Its time to disaffiliate.
Perhaps then they will listen. Perhaps then we can get the change we deserve – a Union that speaks for students, and that empowers every one of them that wishes to engage.
Let’s build an NUS that works for students – one that we would be happy to reaffiliate to.