Thursday, 9 December 2010

What is the point of the NUS?

Whilst at university, I dabbled in Student Politics. I was elected as a Newcastle University delegate to the annual NUS conference in Blackpool on a massive vote of (I think) 12 votes out of a potential electorate of almost 20,000. I was then driven in a minibus and put up in a three star hotel and wined and dined for four days. As a student this was the height of luxury. At the time the newly elected Labour government was introducing top up fees and the leadership under then president Andrew Pakes was very quiet on the issue. I soon learnt that virtually all the executive were aspiring Labour politicians and not willing to put students needs before their careers (Zoe O'Conell writes excellently about this) .

The current anti tuition fees campaign has been noticeable for how removed it has been from the NUS, which has considerable resources. Many of the most radical students (surely the only way to be as a student?) feel that education should be free. This of course is not the NUS position. The NUS, meanwhile, has spent most of its time beating Lib Dems over the head about their pledges to not raise fees. I am not happy about the coalitions deal on tuition fees but I recognise that Vince Cable and others have won compromises to make it as progressive as it can be.

The NUS meanwhile was emailling the government (see here)arguing that it should not raise the cap on tuition fees but instead raise interest rates on loans, which would hit all, and reduce grants for poorer students. Instead their solution would have actually been more regressive than the current package. Potentially Lib Dem ministers could have honoured their pledge to not raise fees but would have definitely failed in the second part, which was to increase fairness. As a Lib Dem helping people from poorer backgrounds go to uni is probably the most important thing. This package, which isn't ideal, achieves this more than Labours Graduate Tax or even the NUS proposals.

At the end of the day the NUS leadership has no credibility. After my trip to the NUS conference all those years ago, I was so disgusted by the excess and venality of the NUS I joined a doomed campaign to disaffiliate the Newcastle Students Union from NUS. I think students may need to consider whether there is much point to an NUS that promotes an even worse deal than the governments.


  1. You make good points about the ineffectiveness of the NUS. It's happily cosied up to the previous regime for the past decade or so under the leadership of Wes Streeting

    Its obvious the Lib Dems will be the fall guys here but this is what will happen when you base a manifesto with no expectation of ever getting into power and that manifesto seriously causing bother when you do

  2. GT - I was agreeing with you for the first half! I don't think the problem was having a manifesto which promised no tuition fees but as a lower priority than other areas. In a coalition you can honour some commitments and can't get agreements on other issues.

    With hindsight the issue was signing the NUS pledge which pledges you to not supporting a rise in tuition fees under any circumstances. Of course, this pledge doesn't cover a graduate tax at a higher level of contribution.

  3. The scenes in London were shameful. If these are the "future brains" of our country then there is no hope for them and they certainly don't deserve to go to university.