What the NUS (National Union of Students) leaders say about its financial crisis makes no sense.
The leaders says that NUS needs to cut back on its democracy in order to survive. But the few financial figures available suggest that the financial crisis, such as it is, has nothing to do with high spending on democratic procedures, let alone on campaigning.
NUS has not yet submitted its accounts for the year ending June 2018. But we can get some picture from previous years’ accounts. Income from membership and expenditure on wages seem stable.
There is no indication that expenditure on conferences has increased a lot. NUS has done less and less public campaigning — it hasn’t called a national demonstration since November 2016 — and can’t have overspent on that.
In the year ending June 2017 NUS had an annual turnover of £24 million. There was a shortfall over the year of £3.6 million, but still £5 million in the bank and £13 million in unlisted investments. NUS was far from facing bankruptcy.
Why the deficit? Poor management of the NUS Extra discount card scheme, part of NUS Services, seems to have caused a sharp rise in what appears in the accounts as “cost of sales”, so gross profit margins have shrunk. We need to know what has happened with NUS Extra, and what is covered by that “cost of sales”.
Yet the discussions at NUS HQ are not about fixing up any of that — instead, about cutting democracy.
Proposals include reducing the number of full time officer (FTO) positions from 20 to 13. This would abolish the Trans Officer, LGBT (Women’s Place) Officer, International Officer, Society and Citizenship Vice President, either merging Union Development and Welfare or cutting one of them, and reducing the number of Welsh and Scottish FTOs from three to one each.
Other proposed options are abolishing the National Executive Committee (NEC) outright. And cutting the campaigns budgets for Liberation campaigns (LGBT+, Trans, Women’s, Black Students, Disabled Students) from £15,000 to £10,000.
There is talk of shifting from delegate conferences to an OMOV system — does that mean abolishing national conference altogether?
Cutting liberation campaign budgets by a third would at best save £25,000, and so improve the £3 million deficit by less than one per cent.
If NUS wants to prune office expenses, a better place to start would be the Chief Executive’s salary of £100,000. His position, alongside other senior officials, should be elected, with a salary closer to the average student union sabbatical officer.
Yet NUS leaders are aiming to solidify their cutback proposals at a “strategic conversation” on 27-28 November open only to student union Presidents and Chief Executives, with no space for rank and file input.
We must demand that NUS opens the books to a democratically-accountable student investigation, and provides complete transparency for negotiations. The only meeting that should take decisions is a properly constituted national or extraordinary conference.
Workers’ Liberty Students will argue for the Student Left Network, set to launch on Sunday 18 November, to found a broad campaign to save NUS democracy. This campaign should call a demonstration outside the “strategic conversation” meeting, and coordinate left Presidents’ response inside.
It should encourage students to demand emergency student council meetings to discuss the attack on democracy; it should circulate model motions for those meetings, alongside putting together a united left slate to save NUS democracy at NUS conference in spring 2019.
The campaign against undemocratic cutbacks must also make the positive case for further democratisation of NUS. For example, we need longer conferences, with proper time for debates on motions, and a return to two conferences per year.
Decision making power must be taken from the semi-elected trustee board and given back to the elected National Executive. NUSSL (the commercial purchasing arm of NUS) should be accountable to conference. Its directors should be elected by conference.
And the merger with AMSU (the union which represents Student Union management) must immediately be reversed. AMSU and NUS should be separate, as they represent distinct interests.
• Socialist Feminist Campus Collective Launch Meeting, Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 12 PM – 5 PM, UCL, London