Delegates from SURHUL travelled to Wolverhampton for the Extraordinary Conference, with the event being deemed a great success despite an on stage protest by a pro-Palestine group.
As the chief representative of over seven million students and 600 campus Unions nationwide, the decisions taken will ensure that the needs of students are once again at the “forefront of a dynamic, relevant and effective campaigning organisation”.
The Extraordinary Conference, held in Wolverhampton on 20th January, voted to ratify sweeping changes to the financial, administrative and policy-setting structures; designed to ensure that students have greater opportunities to participate in decision-making, effectively hold the organisation to account and to streamline the cumbersome policy-setting process.
In recent years, delegates had expressed growing frustration with an organisation that was failing to keep pace with a diversifying education system that increasingly caters to the needs of international, mature and part-time students as well as traditional UK school leavers.
At the heart of the reforms is the understanding that if NUS fails to represent broad swathes of the student population, it cannot rightly claim legitimacy to speak on their behalf.
The National Annual Conference will remain as the central decision-making body, with the power to elect a president, ratify all debates and policy as well as overseeing the responsible implementation of an £8 million budget.
As part of the reforms, five policy ‘zones’ are to be created, each specialising in an area of strong concern to students: ‘Higher Education, Further Education, Welfare, Society & Citizenship and Union Development’. These bodies will carry out detailed research and play a crucial role in policy development, reporting to the annual conference and enabling all delegates to gain a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.
The creation of a new e-consultation system online is intended to reach the highest possible number of students to hear what they have to say.
The current Board and Senate, which oversee all day to day legal, financial, administrative and policy areas will become the Trustee Board and National Executive Committee respectively, undergoing sizable transformations. Their regeneration reflects the urgent need to strengthen transparency within the organisation, citing delegates’ fears that the protocols on holding senior officers to account are confused and archaic.
In future, the Trustee Board will have the power to over-rule the NEC on matters concerning finance and liability, yet it will do so knowing that the NEC – in charge of coordinating political activities, campaigns and the implementation of policy – can remove officers who are deemed to have over stepped their remit. With the annual conference ultimately overseeing both of these bodies, it is intended that the new checks and balance mechanism will foster a fair and efficient safeguard.
NUS has also come under fire in recent years due to the fact that, despite its large membership, there are relatively few official positions open to nomination. This draws a strong contrast with the many opportunities on offer to students within their own campus union. In response, reforms are underway to both increase the range of elected or appointed offices and make it easier to stand for these positions. The new policy ‘zones’ in particular will require a diverse range of skills from its elected committee members.
The NUS is also committed to the principle that its elected officers and senior staff must reflect the diverse backgrounds and educational circumstances of the wider student community.
At the Annual Conference, for example, part-time students will make up a higher proportion of delegates, with greater funds and resources also being allocated to campaigns that reflect their learning needs. For the first time, a senior officer will be appointed to focus solely on improving the educational experiences of international students.
In a courageous move, the Union has agreed to introduce a National Ballot initiative, enabling both the NEC and ordinary members to hold a referendum on major issues that arise. This will enable NUS’ membership to hold onto significant control of the organisation’s agenda.
Both the initiative and the organisation’s wider reforms are soon to be tested, with the government’s review of higher education top-up fees due to take place in 2009.