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Towards a 21st Century NUS Democracy

Monday 20-06-2016 - 12:45

James Robertson from the Project 100 team blogs about making our democracy more inclusive and representative

Democracy at NUS is how we choose our leaders and derive our legitimacy to speak on behalf of our members. So the stronger our democracy, the stronger our voice. This is of course also true for students’ unions. However, in recent years, students’ unions have taken brave leaps forward, successfully experimenting with different forms of democracy to bring themselves closer to their members. It is now time for NUS to do the same. Passing the 12 principles for a better democracy at our sovereign decision making body National Conference was the first step in this process.

On Wednesday last week we began to think about the next steps: a group of staff and officers from students’ unions and NUS made the most of the (temporary) sunshine to get out to Gilwell Park and do some big creative thinking about what these principles might look like in practice.

After icebreakers and a reminder of the research we’ve done so far, the group were given time for personal reflection. Everyone drew their vision for a 21st century democracy and photographed something that illustrated how they felt about our decision-making. Despite multiple claims of “not being able to draw” these visual representations showed a common sense that people felt NUS democracy is too confusing, disjointed and removed from students and students’ unions.

After a walking lunch, people got together in groups of five to share their initial ideas. Although no definitive decisions were made, there were a number of areas of broad agreement:

  • That far more time needed to be made for deliberative discussion
  • That zones aren’t working as well as they were envisaged
  • That we have too much policy and a lot of officers
  • That we’re not connecting with students on the ground through students’ unions
  • That we’re still failing to involve FE students’ unions and students in our decision making
  • That the student movement agrees on a lot of things but that our processes amplify what we don’t agree on


By the end of the day there was a great sense of openness in the group and a willingness to explore new ideas. Following a request before the meeting, this briefing of some examples of democracy from elsewhere was prepared and fed into the conversations. There were a number of ideas that the group were interested in exploring further including:

  • Having a referendum or preferendum after conference to either prioritise or accept/reject the decisions made
  • Holding hustings of NUS FTO candidates that could be live streamed to regional meetings of students. Then consider holding all delegate elections at the same time and/or electing key NUS FTOs at the same time as sabbatical officers
  • Perhaps having a 'core' NUS democracy that is much, much more simple and easy to participate in. This could include electing the president and setting priority policy
  • Consider capping the number of policies that can be set in any one year.
  • Having a process that identifies a priority issue (e.g. mental health) then having a separate process that enables different groups to work through what action they take on it.


This is all really early days. So some, none, or all of these ideas may stand up to further interrogation. However, the group were clear that in order to get the democracy we want, a 21st century democracy that works for all our members, we have to be bold and make some major changes to the way we do things. This means working together, suspending cynicism and thinking differently. NUS already challenges what so many people think is possible, it’s time to do it with democracy.

If you’ve got ideas you’d like to share or would like more information drop me an email on James.Robertson@nus.org.uk

Our brifing on 'democratic innovations from around the globe' is available to downliad via NUS Connect here

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