A Scottish Union of Students?
The National Union of Students is facing bankruptcy. With a deficit of over £3 million, there is to be a dramatic restructuring of the organisation and deep cuts to activities and staffing are likely to be made.
Perhaps the saddest element to the potential downfall of our NUS is the stark realisation that very few of us care. And if you are a student going about your daily business of exams, assignments and work, why would you?
NUS is distant from the daily struggles, experiences and lives of the students it seeks to represent. This is despite the best efforts of many dedicated, hard-working and passionate officers and staff.
The truth is the organisation’s structures do not facilitate grassroot student engagement. NUS relies on an outdated and detached conference delegate system, which privileges a handful of engaged students through a member Student Union. As a student, there are conditions on whether you can have a say on your National Union of Students. You must:
- Ensure your Student Union is a member of NUS.
- Stand and win in an NUS delegate election on your campus.
- Be available on the days of the conference, regardless of exams, assignments or other responsibilities.
- Have an understanding on how the conference, motions and jargon works.
- Be fortunate enough for your issue to be prioritised on the agenda and be selected to speak on the motion.
The above procedure is the way NUS debated its position on Brexit. It is interesting here to offer the comparison on how our lecturers, through their University and College Union (UCU) decided their approach. Although the UCU has many of the same democratic structures as NUS, including an annual conference where much of the policy is decided, it also engages in 21st century direct democracy. In debating their Brexit position, the UCU facilitated and online ballot in which all its 100,000+ members could vote. Imagine NUS were able to digitally canvas 7 million students across the UK to decide our stance?
NUS is designed as a bureaucratic, top-down organisation. The indifferent response from students across the country to the Union’s downfall is the result of its alienating indirect democracy, which leaves students unaware, unengaged and uninvolved with NUS.
Be that as it may, NUS has had its successes. The National Union has successfully mobilised mass student rallies against tuition fees in London, conducted truly transformative research and facilitated Student Union development. Though, the most impressive material victories have emerged from Edinburgh. It is here that NUS Scotland, with its small unit of officers, staff and volunteers, secured an extra £21 million in student support funding from the Scottish Government. Additionally, the Edinburgh office has impressively pushed the Government to respond to the mental health crisis on our campuses, delivering an investment for 80 new counsellors for universities and colleges. The success of NUS Scotland in recent years highlights the different environment north of the border, where education policy is devolved to a Holyrood administration which is generally open to hearing from students. NUS Scotland independently responds to unique Scottish conditions and policy set by a Scottish Government. Although consumed and marred by the same alienating democratic structures of the UK Union, NUS Scotland has proved an effective lobbying body.
It is this relative comparative success of NUS Scotland which makes the prospect of cuts to Edinburgh disappointing. Rumours of drastic budgetary reductions being imposed on NUS Scotland by an NUS UK Turnaround Board which has no Scottish representation leaves one to question the direction students in Scotland should take. Might it be worthwhile for us to respond to the unique education environment in Scotland by establishing an autonomous Scottish Union of Students? Perhaps a localised Scottish Union of Students may prove better equipped to foster an agile and radically democratic culture which canvasses the opinions of grassroots students, not just full-time Student Union leaders. A Scottish Union of Students dedicated to influencing and challenging Holyrood, where education legislation is set. A Scottish Union which works in solidarity with its counterparts in other parts of the UK when joint priorities are agreed.
The Scottish Trade Union Congress operates independently from the English and Welsh Trade Union Congress; might we be the same?
It is my hope that this article spurs discussion and debate among students in Scotland and the UK. The National Union of Students faces financial abyss. As we contemplate the future of our union and our movement, we must ask ourselves how we got here and how we can radically improve going forward.
For students in Scotland, we must consider whether a localised, autonomous Scottish Union of Students might be the path toward a democratic body which is able to engage students, whilst seeking to improve their lives.
A Scottish Union of Students?
President, Strathclyde Student Union
SEC, NUS Scotland