By Josh Smith
A recent survey carried out by Palatinate asked students what they thought of the National Union of Students (NUS) and whether they believed the NUS was still relevant to university life.
In response to the question, ‘Do you think NUS is relevant to Durham students?’, 147 responses (74.6%) responses out of 200 said ‘no’, whilst only 50 (25.4%) said ‘yes’. 170 students (85.9%) also said that they did not know the name of the current president of NUS.
Palatinate asked students what they already knew about NUS. 85 people (42.9%) chose ‘I know who they are and what they stand for’ and 88 (44.4%) chose ‘I have only heard of NUS through my NUS card’, whilst 11 people (5.6%) said they did not know whom NUS were.
When asked to explain why they found the NUS irrelevant, many students focused on the left-wing politics associated with NUS.
One student described NUS as a “bureaucratic system of unionists and communists who push their own political agenda rather than those of our students”, while another said that NUS was “far further left of centre than most students agree with” and was therefore “quite simply unrepresentative of general opinion”.
Those that thought NUS was relevant, however, highlighted the positive nature of NUS in representing students on a national scale.
Many students praised the capacity of NUS to lobby government in policy areas that directly affects students.
One response said: “[NUS] works in the interest of under-represented and structurally challenged groups who exist as part of the Durham student community”.
Another response compared NUS to a trade union, calling it a “strong national forum” which protects students’ rights.
However, despite 42.9% saying that they knew what NUS stood for, many of these respondents knew very little about the organisation and were vague in what NUS lobbied for.
One student said: “Although I don’t notice much of what they do, I think it’s important to have a nationwide union supporting the views of students”, while another said: “[NUS] feels very disconnected from students at the moment, but it has the potential to be a useful voice for students”.
It is clear that even those who find NUS relevant are not entirely sure why. Of more concern is the fact that 44.4% of students surveyed had only heard of NUS through their NUS card.
The survey revealed that many students only value the benefits their NUS card brings, rather than that of the union itself.
One student praised the “regulation of student services registration with NUS brings”, in particular the reduction in the price of alcohol in college bars.
Even this, however, has been criticised: “They have now gotten to the point where they have their own objectives that are disjointed from many universities and fail to represent us effectively.
“The prices offered by NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) are actually worse than many other, nonexclusive suppliers. So while they are relevant, they are also useless.”
NUS is a voluntary membership organisation, which consists of 600 students’ unions and promises to “promote, defend and extend student rights.”
A key example of this is the Liar Liar Campaign, which was launched in the run up to the 2015 General Election and publically denounced MPs who broke promises regarding tuition fees.
However, this campaign is also an example of how NUS has become synonymous with left-wing politics as it was accused of specifically targeting the Liberal Democrats.
One response to Palatinate’s survey said that the estimated £40,000 that was used to fund the Liar Liar Campaign “could have been better spent furthering causes of students to all parties, rather than slamming one in particular.”
Many students feel that NUS is a means to an end to pursue Labour-leaning policies.
Toni Pearce, the current NUS President, is a Labour Party member and pushed for active campaigning against the Liberal Democrats in May 2015. Some have seen this as a result of her own disappointment towards the Liberal Democrat’s position on tuition fees, after she voted for them herself in 2010.
Moreover, the relevance of NUS to the University has been questioned after Durham Students’ Union voted against a motion that proposed to support free education in November 2014. Given that free education is one of the primary goals of NUS, is it still relevant to Durham students?
105 students (54.7%) thought that the Students’ Union should still be affiliated with NUS following the decision of the Students’ Union last November, while 87 (45.3%) said that the Students’ Union should disaffiliate itself from NUS on the basis of this.
Clearly, there are misconceptions about the NUS, and its relationship with the Students’ Union needs to be addressed.
In March 2014, The Tab found similar responses, with 35% of students surveyed saying they had no idea what the NUS does.
Palatinate interviewed Megan Dunn, the president-elect of NUS, in April, who spelt out the benefits of affiliation with NUS.
When asked how NUS can represent Durham students’ views, Dunn said that students “must recognise that NUS is a collective, not a single, organisation” and that one of the main benefits was being part of a “movement of 7 million students”.
Dunn also said that the benefits have been mutual: “It is important for NUS to recognise the concerns Durham students have.
“Durham is influential in debates on how NUS carries on, it has definitely had its voice heard.”
Thus, while the Students’ Union’s decision to reject free education should not mean disaffiliation with NUS, it is clear that NUS has problems engaging students and requires a stronger university presence in order to educate students in their objectives and therefore support the Students’ Union.
Although Dunn announced that an NUS officer would be coming to Durham in the foreseeable future to help support the campaign against the accommodation fees crisis, many of the responses submitted to the survey argued that the University’s collegiate system has replaced the need for NUS.
One response said: “I don’t think being a collegiate university fits within the idea of an organisation such as NUS”.
Another said: “Given the prominence of individual college JCRs in debating controversial topics, the Students’ Union in Durham in effect takes over the role of NUS in coordinating campaigns.”
When asked what NUS could do to engage Durham students more, many responses called for a stronger presence within the university, such as raising awareness through events in the Students’ Union or through leaflets.
One student suggested: “Come up with a fun way to teach students about NUS and what it can offer. Make it appeal to the people who voted no to free education.”
While many students recognise that NUS should be relevant to university life, they fail to see its importance at the moment: “I’m not entirely sure that the NUS is irrelevant to Durham students, it may be relevant in ways of which I am unaware.
“I’m willing to accept that NUS does important things, which matter to all universities, Durham included, however I wouldn’t know what these things are.”
Outside of the University, NUS has generated an extremely negative image, such as refusing to condemn “Islamic State” terrorists on the grounds that the motion was ‘Islamophobic’ or because of its banning of clapping at NUS Women’s Conference 2015.
The stereotype of NUS as ineffectual and heavy-handed appears to pervade many students’ beliefs: “I don’t really understand what they do, just that they don’t have a good reputation.”
Dunn promised that NUS will “support Students’ Unions in whatever way they need it.” Hopefully under her leadership, NUS will combat its negative image and build a stronger grounding.
With the majority of students recognising who NUS are, and yet still finding them irrelevant, it is crucial that NUS begin to work to the majority of students’ interests in an engaging and effective way.
Or face the consequences.