The three major complaints about the NUS are, according to Wes Streeting (NUS VP Education), that the organisation needs to be more democratic, more representative, and more relevant. That is what the White Paper promises to enact. At the moment the NUS is plagued by Â‘decision making that is bogged down in processes to the detriment of outcomes, and access to those processes has been increasingly difficult for members.Â’ The NUS Executive Committee, the main policy body, is overly large and ruinously factionalised, with little definition in job description in places and officers such as the National Secretary and National Treasurer who have to maintain and manage the finances of a multi-million pound national organisation with little or no experience. To quote the Paper, the aim of the review is to Â“bring back the NUS to its core purpose of developing and championing strong studentsÂ’ unions, as well as being a pioneering, innovative and powerful campaigning organisation.Â”
Royal Holloway is one of a growing number of studentsÂ’ unions who are supporting this bold move on reform, and SU President Joff Manning welcomes the proposed changes Â“The Governance structures of the NUS have stayed relatively untouched since the formation of the National Union in the early 1900s, but student numbers, student lifestyles, and student debt have changed forever. ItÂ’s time for the NUS to acknowledge that its membership has changed, and that it must change along with it or face growing criticism that it is out of date and out of touch.Â” The NUS Review bears striking resemblance to the Governance reform passed last year here at Royal Holloway, and indeed the NUS is following an already prevalent trend in unions nationwide. The purpose of studentsÂ’ unions is to represent the needs and concerns of the student body Â– these have changed since 1922 when the NUS was founded. No longer are students primarily concerned with political agitation, though this is of course still a factor. What students are worried about is money and the lack of it. As such SUs are more than ever commercial enterprises rather than campaigning organisations. The White Paper reflects this shift in basic purpose allowing for outside expert help in areas such as law, finance and risk management to advise the new policy body, the Â‘SenateÂ’, through the new administrative Â‘BoardÂ’. (Useful websites for further information include http://rhbncac.facebook.com/group.php?gid=18736554848 and http://resource.nusonline.co.uk/media/resource/Democracy%20leaflet%20amended_2007_10.pdf).
All these measures are both good for the NUS and good for students, which is why an Extraordinary Conference has been mooted. Once 25 unions second the proposal there can be a frank and constructive debate on moving the national body that represents some 7 million students in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland forward with the times. However there are some members who are not happy with the proposed reform. Indeed there are those actively and venomously against it. One LSE student blasts the idea as Â‘possibly the most transparent, exposed and cynical political manoeuvreÂ’ he had ever seen. Two members of the NUS Executive Committee, Sofie Buckland and Rob Owen, voted against the proposal, stating that it is inherently undemocratic and beholden to a Â‘thin layer of sabbatical officers and a small number of Labour Students and Â“independentÂ” national officers.Â’ The major problem seems to be the Extraordinary Conference, which will necessarily be sooner rather than later. They argue that because not many unions have elected their NUS delegates, and cannot for one minute detail or another, the conference will be fundamentally flawed. Â‘NUS has gone through a crisis of democratic involvement, of political culture, of financial viability. However, the way to solve this crisis is to replenish the national unionÂ’s activist base through active political campaigning,Â’ argues an anti-reform petition online (www.free-education.org.uk). Seeking to keep all debate to the annual conference to maintain Â‘democratic procedureÂ’ these nay-sayers counter the prevalent sentiment – Â‘an Extraordinary Conference is needed because there are factions within the movement that will stop at nothing to block reform. An extraordinary conference gives us a clear mandate to discuss the proposals put to us, without the political in-fighting and filibustering that so typifies Annual Conference.Â’ Â– Joff Manning.
As with all NUS actions this reform has its supporters and its detractors. This is the nature of politics, though the automatic vitriol is a uniquely student political phenomena. What the outcome will be of the reform will be, hopefully, a new, organised, focussed NUS that can bring the student movement back to itÂ’s three main raison dÂ’etres Â– equality, democracy and collectivism.