Tuesday 24-05-2016 - 17:36
To officers who are wondering what your role in NUS affiliation debates is - leading on these issues is the heart of your job, and your bargain with the students who elected you.
As a number of students’ unions have been voting on whether to stay affiliated to NUS, it has disappointed me to see handfuls of elected officers actively choosing to remain silent on such a crucial question facing their union. I’ve heard from some that it’s a necessary step to achieve a balanced debate; and from others that they are sitting on the side-lines to mitigate some kind of conflict of interest.
But I want to be clear - that is not the right call. I understand the tensions but especially in the case of discussing NUS, officers staying silent is just, to be frank, a stupid idea. It throws the future of your students’ union into the winds. As an advocate of healthy, informed democratic debate I whole-heartedly believe that officers must be able to speak their mind to inform that debate.
Firstly, officers are the most informed voices on campus about the pros and cons of NUS.
This is by design. NUS works for students principally through students’ unions – the representative bodies of students. With training, advice and development work we strengthen students’ unions and support the people who work in them.
This network of students’ unions around the UK, built from the ground up, is what makes students powerful. If NUS tried to drive from the top, organising 7 million students from London, it would fail.
Student officers are therefore the people who see the fruits of our work. You are the ones with the evidence and the position to ensure an informed debate.
I’m not talking simply facts and figures, but the interpretation of them. You have experienced how NUS really works for your students’ union and can make honest judgements about what the trade-offs are.
I myself try to demonstrate evidence-based leadership about NUS membership to my own stakeholders and members in Northern Ireland. My experience shows me that NUS UK isn’t perfect, it needs an overhaul of its democratic structures, and support for the devolved nations is patchy at times. I have consistently stated these things as drawbacks, but I have also been clear that this is outweighed by the benefits of membership – we are stronger together and we are a force for good in society.
This is what creating an informed debate looks like.
Secondly, we need to be clear about the role of elected student officers. Students have elected you with character to lead them. They trust you.
Silence on a complex issue, with substantial and long-term impacts on students and the union that you lead is a betrayal of that trust. Students need you to hold an opinion, to inform the debate, to help them come to their conclusions. Otherwise the vacuum is filled by ideology, irrelevance and, as we have already seen, fiction and fabrication.
Don’t hope for other students to be leaders. Like someone will come forward with a ‘more studenty experience than you’. You are the elected leaders. You have the mandate. Students have voted to hear your thoughts.
Today it was announced that students at Hull University Union have voted to disaffiliate from NUS. This is clearly very disappointing.
The outcome sits in stark contrast to Exeter and Warwick Uni students who voted to stay. The common theme is that at Hull, as at Lincoln and Newcastle, NUS officers were not allowed to debate, inform or converse with students on those campuses.
This has mostly been in the context of student media with specific anti-NUS stances and/or where student leaders were staying neutral and not informing the debate.
Students’ unions have to trust students to make the best decision about NUS membership, having heard all sides of the argument and particularly having heard the views of their elected leaders.
This is what a healthy democracy is made of when it comes to students’ unions.
This is why I’ve been so vocal in the NI IN campaign about the EU referendum. The decision that will be taken on 23 June will have implications for decades to come, and the generation to which I belong, as well as those coming after us has the most to lose in the event of a withdrawal from the EU.
I have been pounding the streets and campuses of universities and colleges across Northern Ireland, because I have been elected to hold an opinion, I am paid to inform my opinion and my constituents expect to hear it.