On matters of politics, function and relevance, the National Union of Students fails at every hurdle
The last few days has played out what is obviously the most important date in every British student’s year planner. No, not the date of finals; nor is it the final night of Fresher’s Week. You guessed it; I’m referring to the NUS National Conference. Every student longs in their deepest heart’s chamber for this moment; to gaze in awe at the speccy politicos ranting about austerity, or Israel, or Michael Gove, or whatever; to cast your vote into a tide of irrelevant Marxoids who wish to promote their own political agendas on the student dime; to fine-comb the pledges and manifestos of largely unaccountable buffoons who claim for themselves the right to speak for the students of this nation.
This is satire, of course. And not even very good satire. But it demonstrates one of the great failures of the National Union of Students: their failure to be in any way relevant to the vast swathes of British students, the students whom they should be serving in exchange for their heavy financial endowments.
But the failure of the NUS does not remain isolated at its increasing irrelevance (which I’ll return to later); indeed, its three fundamental failures meet as a kind of tripartite Venn diagram, overlapping on many points whilst separated by their outcomes.
The biggest failure, the one which turns off students across the country and which also perverts its original mission is on the political front. Students, by and large, are pretty left-wing. Go to any house party, student night or ski social and you’ll find this out pretty quickly; you’ve often got to Wikipedia a bit of info on Trotsky or Luxemburg just to get a snog. But an organisation which claims to speak for every student in the nation has no right to assume that every student agrees with its politics.
Moreover, to lump every student into a blob of conformity is an omission of the facts from the outset. But, when the fundamentals of politics held by the upper echelons of the NUS are of a very far-out and radical Marxist-Leninism are those purported to belong to the blob of student opinion, such a claim is a direct perversion.
The NUS’s second biggest failure, stemming from its political failure, is its ambiguity as to its actual politics. What is the NUS actually for? If you followed the feed on Twitter dedicated to it (#nusnc14 is you cared (you probably shouldn’t)), you’d think that the role of the NUS was pretty vast. Various speakers and candidates suggest activities as vast as spending huge sums counter-protesting the EDL, writing it into its constitution that ‘UKIP are officially opposed by the NUS’ as happened yesterday, making statements (often very biased and non-factual ones at that) on the Israel-Palestine question, and aiming to protest against the “savage austerity” of some slightly conservative fiscal policies.
But this isn’t what the role of the NUS is supposed to be. Its primary function should have and should be the welfare of the students it claims so sweepingly to represent. But you’d never gather that much from the student-political opportunists at the NUS National Conference. It’s all anti-Americanism, or anti-free trade, or anti-‘Islamophobia’, or anti-fill the blank space. (By the way, if the NUS don’t like something, they will try and ban it, or officially oppose it, or make some other gesture largely irrelevant to the student bodies of the nation.) The National Union of Students is not only frivolous about what should be its raison d’etre, the welfare of British students; it is morally dishonest for masquerading under such a pretence.
The NUS’s third and final failure is less of an overlap, more of a corollary to its political and functional failures. This failure, as alluded to above, is its failure of relevance. We are in an age like never before, where people are anti-political animals at an alarmingly high rate. This has never been truer of young people, a hulking percentage of whom are students. The difference is, the Westminster bubble does make some difference to the world; the NUS bubble doesn’t. Not only do a huge portion of students know absolutely nothing about the NUS; they will never care to find anything out.
And also… people are becoming increasingly less interested in the whole debacle; just last October, a candidate for the Student Union presidency at the University of Bristol pledged to spend the entire budget allocated for the university’s annual donation to the NUS on gin (as brilliantly scooped by this website) (Milton, old boy, we did it again!). People are fed up with the same self-selecting Marxists trying to monopolise their positions at the expense of, ironically, student welfare. The sums poured into the NUS would be better off burnt, and student unions up and down the country are beginning to realise this.
And as this lack of interest grows, the NUS tightens its claws around power. Just last month it made a bold proposition to “centralise” powers over individual university student union elections. As well as having its Head of Membership, Emma Powell, as an official officer in every student union in the country, the NUS will retain the power (although not, I think, the authority) to “advise” for or against students whose opinions may or may not run counter to their own.
My advice to any student union officer in the country? Recognise that the NUS is a failure. It is not only wise to drop it like the hot pile of horse manure that it is; it would be much cheaper, would grant you more autonomy and would free you from huge amounts of bureaucracy. With all the freed up cash and freedom, you could put all that money and all those resources to better use. Like, maybe, student welfare, perhaps? Or, as the University of Bristol decided, Gin. You can decide for yourselves.