This year’s National Union of Students (NUS) Conference in Glasgow (9-11 April), will be very different to previous years′. Elections will take place on the first day before motions debates begin, no official fringe meetings will take place due to "lack of funds for staff", and delegates will vote on a reform motion coming from the right-wing led by President Shakira Martin, which proposes scrapping all remaining structures which enable rank and file control of NUS.
The Student Left Network (SLN) has been opposing these reforms since they were first announced. The soft left in NUS are also opposing the reforms. That′s good but unfortunately they don’t reject them in their entirety and have made no criticism of the way they were drawn up: by an unaccountable and unelected Turnaround Board made up two right-wing officers in alliance with NUS and SU CEOs, with a mandate from student union executive teams but without the knowledge or consent of rank and file members.
The SLN is backing Justine Canady for NUS President, who has consistently argued to defend NUS democracy against the reforms and for a radical, democratic NUS that fights for its members. Justine, a Workers' Liberty supporter, also fully supports the fight to save the NUS Trans Campaign, as part of the broader task of fighting for a radical, democratised NUS. She won a motion of no confidence in President Shakira Martin over the cuts and reforms at her SU council and helped other students to do the same.
In contrast, neither Zamzam Ibrahim, an incumbent officer who is the soft left’s candidate for President, nor Eva Crossan Jory, rerunning for Welfare, have used their positions to build opposition to the reforms in student unions and effectively challenge the right wing.
What is being proposed?
The reforms will:
• Scrap the majority of NUS′s committees.
• Strip democracy out of of the conference. Consensus-based decision-making in workshops will take precedence over debates on motions and democratic votes. Consensus decision-making is not allows the person with the loudest, most confident voice to win. Also students have diverse opinions: it isn’t realistic to expect socialists to come to a consensus with Tories. Votes on written motions are the only democratic way that NUS’s campaigns and positions can be decided.
• There will be fewer, shorter, less-political conferences.
• Merge the five Liberation conferences (Women’s, LGBT+, Trans, Black, and Disabled) into a single “Liberation Conference”. All full time liberation officers, committees and sections will be cut.
• Ensure student unions are no longer required to hold cross-campus elections to decide their delegates to National Conference. SU executive teams will be able to appoint “suitable” delegates.
• Introduce online votes for student unions pre, during and post conference to further undermine the decision making of conference. And NUS staff will be able to add details into motions explaining their financial and operational impact, making it easier for them to undermine and veto motions on bureaucratic technical grounds.
• Make full-time officer posts will be two years long.
• Limit the campaign priorities of full-time officers to a single “NUS manifesto” adopted by the whole officer team; that amounts to a ban on individual officers politically differentiating themselves or implementing the policies on which they were elected.
• Scrap the National Executive Committee which is supposed to hold officers to account.
• Split NUS UK into two separate arms — “Student Voice” (which consists of the ″representative″ structures post-reform) and “Student Union Development”. All control of SU Development will be given to student union executives (in most cases this means SU CEOs). Students will no longer be able to amend NUS’s articles of association [its constitution], nor vote to approve members of the Trustee Board.
The Student Left Network advocates voting for amendments (2-6, 8, 10-16) which improve the reforms but even if all these pass we should vote down the motion because the motion will retain the separation of NUS UK into ‘Student Voice’ and ‘SU Development’ and the introduction of ‘consensus building’ workshops at National Conference, and online votes before, during and after conference.
The leadership’s reform motion claims that there is a “clear mandate” for these reforms. But they have been drawn up, as we have said, without the vast majority of NUS members knowing about them.
Delegates to conference will be able vote on a motion presenting the reforms, but they won’t be able to amend the proposed new articles of association. The reforms seek to create an NGO-like NUS where the already very limited opportunity for rank and file control is almost completely blocked. Officers will be elected not on the basis of the politics in their manifesto but their “skills and experience”. Bland consensus-formed decisions will drown out dissident political views and marginalised groups. Members won’t be able to debate and vote on motions as a collective. Management will be given more power.
The student Left Network has been campaigning around an alternative, positive vision for NUS. We have argued that conference should be longer, not shorter, with more time for political debate and discussion, and with democratic votes. Student unions’ delegate entitlements should be bigger and always elected by a cross-campus ballot. NUS need to run outward facing campaigns on a national and regional basis, decided by members at conference, organising students to fight for their interests and helping student unions to organise students. NUS training days and events must be free and accessible to all student unions, and control of their content must be given to elected officers. Decision making power must be taken from unelected and highly paid management, including those on the trustee board, and given to National Conference, the NEC and the full time officer team. None of this needs to cost tens of thousands.
The SLN also says democratise local student unions! We need to put power in the hands of elected officers, not staff, external trustees and CEOs, holding regular, built-for general assemblies and campaigning for Labour to commit to scrapping the Charity Law which makes it difficult for student unions to run political campaigns. NUS must work to get an independent student union set up in every college, school and university, helping students to run campaigns and ensure existing student unions are independent from college and university management.
The Student Left Network will be campaigning at conference against the reforms and for a fighting, democratic NUS that leads mass campaigns in defence of students rights, controlled and decided by its seven million members, not its 600 student union CEOs. We will also campaign for left wing motions on Brexit and free movement and campaigning alongside the labour movement for £10/hour minimum wage. We will produce a bulletin, hold caucuses and meetings to discuss with the broad left how we can defeat the reforms, what we do after NUS Conference, and what a radical, democratic NUS would look like.
NUS is in crisis and that lack of participation and engagement in its structures is a serious problem. But this is due to NUS’s failure to fight for students on the daily issues we face, and the bureaucratisation and depoliticisation of our student unions. The reforms will make this problem worse, not better.