We must stick with the NUS

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A recent article in the Tab http://thetab.com/uk/durham/2016/03/27/nus-sucks-28707 called for students to leave the NUS. The article pointed out many very legitimate grievances with the NUS’ direction and recent policy decisions. However, the antidote suggested by the author – that students should opt-out of NUS membership and turn their backs on the National Union entirely – would do nothing to combat the issues raised in the article and potentially be very harmful to the interests of students across the UK.

I’m no fan of the NUS, in fact, very much the opposite. Like the author of the Tab article, I am often left incredibly frustrated by a Union that too often seems to fail to recognise the issues that are most important to students’ day-to-day lives and loses sight of its true function. As critics rightly point out, the NUS embroils itself in many issues it has no power over – Israel, ISIS, internal Labour Party Political et al – and which are utterly superfluous to the interests of its membership. It also focuses too much on the minutiae of identity politics, which while undoubtedly very important, are often given prominence to the detriment of more pressing issues. I’m also strongly opposed to the no-platforming that is too easily endorsed by the NUS – difficult and controversial issues should be dealt with through open and rigorous debate, not silencing those who may hold different views. These problems are understandably alienating for students and leave many of us (including myself sometimes) questioning whether the NUS performs any worthwhile function on behalf of the student community. Why then, do I think we should all remain members of an organisation which has such major defects?

Firstly, whether or not it performs this function effectively, the NUS does perform a crucial role as the national representative body of students, and this is not set to change any time soon. As our National Union, the NUS is the official spokesperson for students. Whenever significant changes are proposed to Higher Education or certain issues arise in the student community, it will ultimately fall to the NUS to represent us – and ensure that policymakers, universities and governments listen to our views. I fail to see how leaving the NUS would do anything to help the organisation perform this function better, in fact, students leaving the organisation would simply undermine the NUS’ authority when negotiating and campaigning on such issues and would mean they are less able to represent students effectively and score victories for students in such scenarios.

Furthermore, students who are critical of the NUS’ current state will not help to make the NUS more representative of its membership by leaving, but would likely make it even less so. Far better to speak up and criticise the actions of the NUS from within and demand that it change direction through the available channels, than to take your bat and ball home in a state of hopelessness and apathy. Leaving the NUS will do nothing but hand further power and dominance to the unrepresentative ‘few’ that the NUS’ critics rail against.

Perhaps most crucially though, there could be no worse time to weaken and divide the student movement by undermining the NUS. The government’s Green Paper sets out proposals that constitute an attack on Higher Education that could lead to further rises in tuition fees and the closure of universities. Couple this with the recent cutting of maintenance grants and cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance and the need for a strong student movement, headed by a strong Union, is clear. Abandoning the NUS will only serve to divide students further with increased factionalism, at a time when we must all unite in opposing changes that will make university even more inaccessible to many and lead to the further marketisation of our education system.  It will make it harder for students to speak with one authoritative voice and easier for the government to push through these changes. The NUS has many faults, but it is the only available body that can provide students with this voice and lead the powerful and organised opposition that is needed.

I am not arguing that the NUS should not be rigorously held to account, of course it should be, just like any representative body. But leaving the NUS does nothing to achieve this aim and harms the student movement in the process. Now is no time for childish comparisons to Nazi Germany and Communist China, now is the time to stand up and campaign for a strong national Union that fights for the interests of students. We cannot make the NUS perfect, but better to try than to abandon it and leave ourselves more likely to face far greater problems than anything that could be caused by the NUS.

Photo credit: NUS

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