Tuesday 11-10-2016 - 15:40
We all know that being a union officer means making tough decisions. Whether it’s fighting course closures while your institution is offering investment elsewhere, deciding what to do with a much loved but underused bar, or allocating society funding, the life of a union officer is one of difficult choices and complex reasoning. It's not so different in NUS.
You gave me a tough decision to make after National Conference this year. In April, you passed a motion that mandated NUS to boycott or sabotage the National Student Survey (NSS) in response to the government's Higher Education reforms. Some of you were very pleased that we would be taking such an action, and got to work straight away developing and building amazing campaigns. Sheffield SU have launched a brilliant Shef>TEF campaign, while Reading SU's cheerleaders spelt out "TEF Off" at their Freshers' Fair.
But not all of you felt able to support the the decision, and I understand those concerns. Worries about the role the NSS has played in supporting students' unions to have their voices heard, about damaging your relationship with your institution and even about what we would do should the campaign actually be successful. To be successful, any NUS campaign needs broad support from member students’ unions, and this is no different. You all have the right to decide whether or not to run local campaigns.
That's why, across the summer, I commissioned a large scale consultation to help me understand how members feel about the range of options open to us, what some of the concerns are and how we might mitigate those and still respect the mandate given to us by National Conference.
We went into the consultation with a fairly black and white question – do you want us to boycott or to sabotage the NSS? - but we came out of it with a much bigger, more profound one. What is the role of the student movement when it comes to taking on the worst excesses of the government's reforms?
I knew that we wouldn't reach a complete consensus on this, but I was genuinely surprised at just how similar the responses from unions were when we started digging deeper. One moment that has stuck with me was speaking with officers from Winchester at our consultation day, who whilst firmly against any form of NSS boycott or sabotage for their own union spoke passionately about the importance of collective action and standing together against these reforms. I thank you for that. Because it helped me greatly when it came to making the ultimate decision. In fact, I thank all of you who gave your time to help us get this far.
You told me that the thing you cared the most about was the linking of the Teaching Excellence Framework with increasing fees. That even if you were against NSS action, you needed our help to stand up to this on your campuses and with your MPs. That you wouldn't stand by and watch the government price students out of their education. In fact, 66% of you said you would be willing to undertake some form of action surrounding the NSS boycott, even if you wouldn't do the boycott itself.
So, in response to this, NUS will be launching a campaign to sever the link between the TEF and fees. We've already started this work, and so many of you have been meeting with your Vice Chancellor, lobbying your MPs and getting the message out about these reforms. But we will be ramping up our support for you on this, providing resources, tools and online platforms to maximise your efforts so that you can be sure your national union is behind you 100% of the way when it comes to standing up for your current and future members.
But I could not ignore the mandate of National Conference, and I couldn't ignore what you told me in the consultation. 45% of you said that you would be willing to undertake an NSS sabotage or boycott, if that's what it took to stop the government. A further 27% of you weren’t sure, but said you might be willing to boycott or sabotage. That's a significant mandate on top of a conference decision. And so, I'm announcing today that should we need to, and if *all* other options fail, then as a movement you have indicated that you will take action against the NSS – and NUS will support you in undertaking NSS boycotts.
This hasn’t been an easy decision but I have one simple realisation to share with you all. An NUS that does nothing is worse than an NUS that takes risks.
We can’t just stand by and see fees sky rocket and not do everything in our power to fight this. We’ll use all the tactics we can – meetings, letters, consultations, petitions, social media, parliamentary questions – we’ll throw everything at it, and we will support you to throw everything at it too. But if everything isn’t enough, I know there is sufficient support for a boycott of NSS as a last resort, and I will support you to do that too if you choose to. I know not everyone will take this path, and that’s fine too. But, everyone will have the support they need to run the local campaign they want to run.
I will always put the interests of students over and above all others. I know some of you are concerned that should we get to the point of needing a boycott, there is a risk that relationship with institutions, the education sector and the government could be damaged.
As I write this, I'm about to head off for a meeting with the Higher Education Funding Council of England, and I'm doing that in the wake of a busy week at Conservative Party Conference, where I spoke to our party of government about the impact these reforms will have on students and higher education. I truly am committed to using a wide range of tactics. But I take these concerns seriously, and I will work with you to answer them.
Over the past few months, we have had a number of conversations about the risk of such actions, the opportunities they offer and also their potential impact. That is why we are going with a multifaceted approach, not a one size fits all one. And I will continue to support you to make sure the campaign you choose to run is one that takes on these concerns and finds solutions.
So, I promise you two things. For those of you who want to boycott, I will ensure that you are supported and provided with the tools and resources you need to make the biggest possible impact on your campuses. We will start with two campaign planning days to support your thinking about what campaign you want to run, how to make it successful and how to plan for your own unique scenario. For those who don't, I will never waiver in providing support outside of the boycott action so you too can have your voices heard – and I will listen to you, like I hope I have proved throughout this consultation.
So, we're really doing this. We're doing this because, after long and complex conversations, you have said you want to. We're doing it because if we've exhausted the lobbying and the demoing and the tactics we do so well and we have still not succeeded, it's the only tool at our disposal to stop this government in its tracks. And we're doing it because it's the right thing to do. I understand the trepidation, but if we don't do the right thing because it's risky, and we don't stand up together when we're being attacked, then what are we here for?
The full results of our NSS Consultation are available on NUS Connect here, and a summary is also available here.