The NUS is a Failure

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.


  1. As someone without a history of attending university in the traditional manner. I read this article with some interest. As someone who studied part-time alongside a full time job my exposure to, and experience of NUS was limited. I therefore wanted to be informed as to why and how they particularly were a “failure”. Unfortunately that isn’t what your article did, rather it pointed to a failure in politics in general and apathy amongst electorates in all too many of their guises.

    Claiming you speak for the people who elect you is universal amongst those
    elected isn’t it? I’m not sure how NUS differs.

    There were many that would have, and many did, disagree with Labour’s decisions
    to go to war. Yet they did so in the name of this country and its inhabitants
    whether they agreed with them or not and regardless of the way they voted in
    the previous general election. Isn’t that what ‘leaders’ do?

    You also suggest that a populist policy (in this case spending money on gin) is
    somehow unique within student politics. I’m sure that as people mature
    what are willing to be bribed by changes but if people want to vote for free
    gin who are you to decide that they should not do so? I’m not clear if
    this was an NUS candidate or a candidate in a local students’ union election, though I suspect the latter. If so how does this reflect on NUS and are you suggesting they should have stopped such a thing happening? Which would be somewhat at odds with your general thrust.

    The “failure” of relevance does not appear to supported by the facts
    if we take engagement of the various constituencies in politics as a
    measure. They would appear to be just as relevant to theirs as ‘normal’
    politics is to the vast majority of this nation. Because people do not find
    things interesting or engaging does not make them irrelevant surely?

    You obviously have a distain for NUS and that is clear in the way the article
    was constructed. As someone who started to read with a willingness to be
    informed I found it to be a piece searching for a reason to be annoyed and as
    such whilst not irrelevant to me it ended up being neither interesting nor engaging. You’d be hoist with your own petard but sadly for all of us that pitard was poorly directed and too ill placed to be harmful in the first instance.

    I guess you made me respond though; so well done you. Perhaps you do have a future as a journalist after all.

  2. Dear, dear, dear. It seems you have a little itch that you are unable to scratch when it comes to NUS. Firstly – check out the definition of ‘Marxist’in the OED and then look back at the NUS NEC, there have only been a tiny number over the last decade and certainly have never been in a position to influence national policy probably since the 1970’s. There has however, been of a number of successful Conservatives on the NUS NEC over the years, they were mainly liberal and level-headed and therefore played an important role in debate, formulating policy and in some instances – deciding elections. I am deeply interested in your views on elected officers of student unions, you hint that they are unrepresentative of their constituents and also unaccountable. Let us explore this theme a little more shall we? SU officers (national or local) are re-elected every year often by the single transferable vote or something similar, often have reserved places for minority groups such as BME, LGBT, women, mature students or similar to ensure greater diversity. The elections are open – anyone can stand, they campaign on local issues, meet their grassroots constiuents on a daily basis and are subject to rules on censure including no-confidence votes by their electorate. Now lets turn to three other institutions, the House of Parliament, the Conservative Party and the London Mayor.
    Parliament – mainly white, largely male, elected by the hugely undemocratic first-past-the-post method, with a huge number of safe seats, no right of censure for the electorate, heavily whipped, unrepresentative (how many genuinely disabled people will lose their non-work related disability living allowance because of conservative MPs who they probably didn’t vote for? How many blind people who are currently on a ‘for life’ DLA award will suddenly be able to see as a result of these so-called reforms?). The majority of MPs spend little time in their constituencies, have shocking attendance records, ignore mass campaigning because they think 5,000 letters have little meaning compared to the whip and are purely lobby fodder.
    The Conservative Party – mainly white, mainly rich (the new Culture Secretary earned £20m by the time he was 25), candidates are hand-picked by central office and presented to local associations, leaders are elected by an arcane system of voting with no real interaction with ordinary members whilst the power, influence and capacity of the whips is fabled. Furthermore it could be argued that the Tory party is in-hock to the press having been dragged kicking and screaming to regulate and even now churning is out uninformed, unevidenced policies to satiate the latest fluctuations of the Mail et al.
    The London Mayor – elected by a tiny fraction of the total London electorate who wibbles, wobbles and wiff-waff’s his way through a series of policy messes and almost spontaneously pronounces on a wide range of policies from foreign affairs to defence and everything in between none of which(by your rule of thumb outlined above) is relevant to his day job as Mayor of London. Interestingly, a number of strike votes by Trade Unions have secured a greater comparative
    level of engagement then actually voted for Boris (or a huge number of MPs for that matter).
    And no, I am not left-wing, I do not belong to any political party and I do vote – according to the manifestos presented at each election. Unfortunately for you and your fellow commentators I have this annoying habit of checking out facts and doing a little bit of analysis rather than producing rip-roaring tirades of ill-reserached and unsubstantiated idealogical cant like your shockingly assembled article.

  3. NUS was and is little more than a conveyor belt for career-politician-wannabes making their way to the LibLabCon.

  4. What a load of crap – just another right-wing student ranting about how his feelings are hurt because delegates voted against things he believes in. Conference didn’t ban anything, voted for loads of liberal centrist policy. Get over yourself.

    • Well that was clearly a well reasoned answer. Oh wait. If you’re going to call it crap how about you show what the NUS is doing for students?


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