For many of us, the National Union of Students is nothing more than the organisation that provides free McFlurries and Topshop discounts. Few know much more. In March last year, The Tab conducted a survey of over 5,000 students. Just 7 per cent of respondents said that they thought the NUS was doing a good job; almost 40 per cent had no idea what it actually does.
This lack of awareness is hardly surprising. The NUS has little relevance for the average student and has long been little more than a mouthpiece for youthful left-wing populism. That’s fantastic if you sleep with Das Kapital under your pillow, but Palatinate’s pre-election poll found that – surprise, surprise – this is not a university dedicated to socialism. The Conservative Party received just short of 30 per cent of the student vote, and only around 17 per cent supported explicitly anti-austerity parties.
Nonetheless, the NUS’s National Conference plays out every year like an on-stage version of 50 Shades of Socialism, with delegates from the Labour Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, and the Greens battling over who is most radical.
Consequently, instead of tackling the real problems faced by students across the country, NUS delegates prefer to engage in grandiose, moralising rhetoric. In the recent past, they have condemned people, countries and institutions as varied as David Lammy, Israel and UKIP. Yet, they refuse to denounce Isis for fear of ‘unfairly demonising all Muslims’. When they do address more parochial issues, they usually revolve around ‘safe spaces’, gender pronouns and unisex toilets.
This is neither what students want, nor what they need. While these may be matters worthy of consideration, few are issues that seriously affect the majority of the student community. As an organisation that claims to speak for everyone in further and higher education, the NUS mustn’t assume all of its members subscribe to this narrow worldview. The quiet, centrist majority deserve better representation.
But the NUS is not just irrelevant and insular. With its curious disdain for freedom, it is also damaging. For an organisation almost entirely staffed by self-styled progressives, its staff are remarkably quick to turn to censorship and boycotts when they see dissent in their ranks. The Sun, ‘Blurred Lines’, sombreros and Nestlé have all felt the sharp edge of the NUS axe.
The tool by which this censorship is most frequently enforced is the ‘No Platform’ policy, which sees speakers banned, newspapers censored and debate castrated. Clearly unfamiliar with the notion that students must be able to ‘think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable’, NUS officers strive to impose a uniform morality on their members.
The most concerning example of its appetite for censorship took place at this very university. In February 2010, the century-old Durham Union Society organised a debate entitled “This house believes in a multicultural Britain” to which they controversially invited two members of the British National Party.
Shocked NUS officials, spotting a fresh opportunity to sit astride their moral high horse, immediately demanded the debate be cancelled. They claimed that it would be illegal, and threatened a ‘colossal protest’ if took place. They told the DUS Exec that “if any students are hurt in and around this event responsibility will lie with you.” With this thinly veiled call for violence, the DUS had little option but to cancel the event. The NUS won.
What is most frustrating about this approach is that we at Durham are fortunate enough to have won a place at one of the country’s best universities. Durham’s high position in every annual league table suggests that its students are intelligent, curious, and capable of independent thought. Certainly, we are perceptive enough not to fall for the vile bigotry of Nick Griffin. But the NUS think otherwise. Worried that our undeveloped minds may be wooed by a controversial opinion, the NUS seek to protect us from dissidents. It is patronising and unintellectual.
Two years after BNP-gate, a National Conference delegate nominated an inanimate carbon rod for NUS President. He claimed that “we may as well elect a non-existent candidate for all the good it will do”, because the union is “broken.”
Clearly, the NUS is not just in need of surface reform; it needs a wholesale transformation of its people and culture. Only then will it have any hope of representing its members properly and effectively. Yet if it is unable to curb its authoritarian impulse, we must leave – this time, for good.
Image: Composed by Patrick Brennan via sunpeaksnews.com and image4world.com