Students’ Union officers defend NUS but call for reform

  • NUS to undergo governance review and reform over the next 12 months

  • Dunn: “Durham has been really influential in the debate about how to take NUS forward”

  • Two Durham SU  officers sent a letter of complaint to the NUS President following the Women’s Conference in March. Charlton: “People couldn’t necessarily express the views that they held.”

By Tom Fenton
NUS logo

“It doesn’t engage students.”
“I don’t know what they do apart from the card.”
“Irrelevant to my everyday student experience, unrepresentative, waste of space.”
“Self-aggrandising wank fest of bullshit-cum-populist-cum-stereotypical student left-wing politics.”

These are just some of the negative views we received in our recent survey looking into student opinion on the NUS.

In an extensive interview with Palatinate, Durham Students’ Union (Durham SU) President Dan Slavin and Activities Officer Joely Charlton defended the National Union of Students (NUS), but said reform was necessary.

Asked what the benefits of affiliation were, Slavin said being part of NUS is about “working together and having our student voice and having our input… so our students are represented nationally”.

He also said that, through NUS Services Limited (NUSSL), a drink is “£1.80 a pint… instead of £3 a pint”. Charlton added that in the future, the Durham SU are hoping to “bulk buy” other things such as stash from NUSSL so it is more affordable to buy and other things that “will really benefit students”.

They also agreed that the NUS has been an enormous help to the Union in organising a number of campaigns this year, such as fixing international fees, the living wage, Disabled Allowance and the zero tolerance on sexual harassment policy.

The NUS is also helping the Students’ Union to develop “active bystander training which challenges sexual harassment and hopefully in the future… will be rolling out consent workshops for students”, according to Charlton.

Slavin agreed that the Students’ Union gets a lot of resources from the NUS.

“There was a whole tool kit produced to tell you the key people in your institution you need to talk to. So they give you tactics.”

However, both Slavin and Charlton agreed that the NUS had to reform to be more accountable to students.

“For the past couple of years we’ve said ‘you need to sort yourselves out’… and so I would say we have had a leading voice.” Dan Slavin on NUS reform

In the next year, the NUS is having a governance review of which Slavin said “Durham [SU] has been quite a strong advocate”.

Slavin said that “Durham has a reputation for being sensible.

“When I talk to my friends who work for NUS they say we know you lot are practical and they use us as a sounding board and ask us whether things will work.”

He added: “For the past couple of years we’ve said ‘you need to sort yourselves out’… and so I would say we have had a leading voice.”

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Megan Dunn, President-elect of the NUS who spoke to Palatinate by phone in May, confirmed this. She said: “Durham has been really influential in the debate about how we take NUS forward and has been a massive help and support.”

Slavin said the governance review is necessary as “the sensible voices are outnumbered by the less sensible voices”.

He also said “the way NUS is structured is not very good”. He described the NUS as dividing into two distinct parts.

One part, which has its “many benefits”, gives training opportunities to Student Union officers in Durham, for example in equality and diversity, and helps in campaigns such as fixing international fees, for the living wage, for the Disabled Allowance and for the Student Union’s zero tolerance on sexual harassment policy.

Slavin said “everyone loves” this part whilst “everyone laughs at” the “annoying” political side.

Most students who gave negative responses about the NUS to Palatinate said the “less sensible voices” was the biggest reason they disliked the organisation.

One student said: “Through protest, complaint and unnecessary pressure it pushes a left-wing agenda quite to the contrary of the beliefs of many students. It actually makes me feel embarrassed to be a student not sharing their excessively politically correct, ultra modern, liberal, oppressive agenda.

“I condemn its position on organisations such as so-called IS and even its refusal to acknowledge UKIP. How can an organisation include and represent all students when it divides and rules and pushes an agenda far to the left that it naively assumes most students back and support!”

Another wrote: “They don’t represent the views of students at all and deal with a very radical minority of views that are not that of the average student” whilst another student described the organisation and campaigns as “outdated and politically extreme”.

A senior member of the Students’ Union told Palatinate that “in its day-to-day workings it is useful, such as with training or its purchasing consortium.”

However, the senior member added that “it does little to dispel the notion that it is a vanity club for a particular type of stufent, following pet political agendas instead of seeking to benefit its membership.”

Last October, the NUS was derided for failing to condemn the so-called “Islamic State” after, according to an NUS spokesperson, “some committee members felt that the wording of the motion being presented would unfairly demonise all Muslims rather than solely the group of people it set out to rightfully condemn.”

In December, the NUS did pass a motion condemning the terrorist organisation, but only as part of a motion opposing US and UK military intervention.

In early June this year, the NUS passed a vote to boycott Israeli goods — from Israel as well as all produce from the Occupied Palestinian Territories — which was condemned by the Union of Jewish Students, who said it would only fuel anti-Semitism.

Asked whether this boycott would affect the Students’ Union in Durham, Slavin said “it’s our choice” and “[we are] not bound by any policy of NUS”. He also defended the NUS making political statements because it is “a political organisation”.

Durham’s Students’ Union has clashed with the NUS in recent years. In 2010, the Durham SU disaffiliated with the NUS after officers stopped a Durham Union Society debate, in which two British National Party members had been invited to take part, from taking place. The Students’ Union reaffiliated in 2011.

In addition, at the National Conference in 2014, the Durham SU abstained from a motion “opposing UKIP”. Slavin said “because we have a UKIP society, we abstained” but did not oppose the motion because “of my own personal point of view on UKIP”.

After the Women’s Conference in March 2015, Charlton and Laura Carter (Community Officer at the Students’ Union) sent a letter of complaint to the NUS President Toni Pearce.

Charlton said: “When we attended we felt that it was quite an intimidating environment and that people couldn’t necessarily express the views that they might hold… We felt that that wasn’t good enough at a democratic event.”

Charlton said the Women’s Conference is “really important”. She told Palatinate that Pearce “wrote back to give us some ideas to make the women’s campaign more open and more successful and it’s something we are going to pass onto next year’s officers and we very much hope that it actually talks about women’s issues.”

Charlton added that: “There are a lot of people from the Left talking about Palestine and detention centres, all pertinent issues from the UK, but they barely talked about women’s issues at all…

“One of the policies they tried to put through was to disband the Women and Leadership campaign because some people felt that the campaign actually contributed to the capitalist system [which this group of people opposed].”

Charlton said they were able to stop the policy, of which she is “a massive advocate”.

According to minutes from the Women’s Conference, other motions called for “the abolition of the prison-industrial complex” in a motion titled “Prison abolition is a Feminist Issue” and one (503) was titled “Dear White Gay Men: Stop Appropriating Black Women” which is (apparently) “prevalent within the LGBT scene and community”. Allegedly, “white gay men may often assert that they are ‘strong black women’ or have an ‘inner black woman’” and benefit from “privilege”.

Both the Women’s Conference and National Conference also passed a number of motions calling for free education, a proposal rejected by the SU in November.

“If you feel as if you’re not being represented you very much have that opportunity. You just need to take those steps.” Joely Charlton

In an interview with Palatinate, Megan Dunn, the NUS President-elect, defended the free education policy even though it was rejected by Durham students.

She said: “We have to recognise that NUS is a collective and not everyone will agree with what we say and do all the time. I think it is important that we recognise that NUS is a student organisation where people may differ on different policies that people will be working in the interests of students…

“It’s very important that we recognise the concerns that students like in Durham have and what is it that makes people think that and how are we going to make sure that what those people are worried about are not the outcomes of the campaign.

“So how can we make sure what Durham Student Union are worried about – the amount of public debt that [that campaign] creates or the economic concern… – that we are addressing those concerns so we are not reinforcing the worries people have.”

Both Slavin and Charlton agreed that students who wanted to change the NUS should “get involved”.

Charlton said: “NUS is a democracy, our unions are a democracy. If you don’t like the way it’s being run, or what’s being said, then instead of saying ‘oh you’re all crazy’, you should get involved, do something about it and run for election at the NUS conference or NUS committee.

“I think it is so important that if you feel as if you’re not being represented you very much have the opportunity to be represented. You just need to take those steps.”

Dunn agreed. She said: “If people don’t like the policy that NUS do in passing then they should get in touch and we can talk about how they can be involved and how they can make their voices heard.”

“It’s about being part of a collective student body… and we can affect real politics.” Dan Slavin

Slavin concluded: “We need to do better at communicating the benefits of our membership. It’s not about pounds and pence. It’s about being part of a collective student body that represents the UK and we have shown time and time again that we can affect real politics.

“In our two constituencies, student turnout went up because we got involved in a nationwide campaign and we were part of it.”

Charlton concluded: “Yes, NUS might have its problems but it is always better for us to be working to improve it rather than saying we should leave.”

Slavin was elected to the National Executive Council earlier this year, which sets the policy between the annual National Conferences.

Asked what he wanted to do with his new role, he told Palatinate: “I want NUS to talk about things our students care about, which is their societies and their actual life as a student rather than all the other stuff going on round the world – [although this] is important and I think NUS should have its opinion on it… [but] we don’t do it right.

“But that is all we ever talk about. What do our students talk about the most? Well the operation of our societies, so why at a national level are we not working on policy to make all the Unions better at getting the societies for example, like charity work and volunteering?

“NUS might have its problems but it is always better for us to be working to improve it rather than saying we should leave.” Joely Charlton

“At the National Conference we never talk about sport and how Wednesday afternoons [are] sacrosanct and [postgraduates] don’t always get Wednesday afternoon off. Why are we not campaigning to make sure every University has Wednesday afternoons free? We won’t because we’re too busy talking about Palestine or whatever is going on at the moment.

“That is what I want to do and try and fix it that way. There are a group of people who got elected at the same time as me who have that view and who aren’t in a political party.”

Asked whether he was positive that change could happen, he replied: “Yes, I am.”

Photos: NUS, Tom Fenton

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