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Why Friends of NUS Matters

Monday 13-03-2017 - 17:00

Former NUS President John Randall explains the importance of NUS' alumni association for former officers, committee members and staff members.

For my generation, NUS is often spoken of as one of the most powerful “old boys’ networks” in the country.  25 years after I was elected NUS President, one third of those Tony Blair appointed to his first Cabinet were people I had met through NUS. The student movement  continues to supply individuals to a range of leadership roles, and it is sensible for NUS to maintain contact with those able to offer influence, advice and personal mentoring.

There are four, potentially overlapping, groups of alumni, contact with whom NUS particularly values:

  • Those holding positions of influence, especially in government and education.
  • Those with specialist skills and /or contacts of relevance to the work of NUS.
  • Those who, between them, are the custodians of the ‘corporate memory’ of NUS.
  • Those who may support, and may influence others to support, current NUS campaigns.

The first group is of obvious benefit; they are opinion formers and leaders, and occupy positions in which their decisions may have an impact upon students.

Those in the second group are likely to be valuable at a more technical level; for example, a practising journalist advising on the appointment of a press officer, or a person engaged in educational policy speaking at a workshop or conference.

The third group is of particular value, given the relatively short periods for which elected officers and (to an extent) staff may be involved in NUS. Over the years there have been several occasions on which I have had my brains picked by office holders or staff wanting detail about and context of past policies and activities. In recent years I have answered questions, and provided comments on (for example) the establishment of the NUS/USI agreement, the background to the ‘no platform’ policy of the 1970s, and the emergence of NUS policy on gay rights. All are issues having current resonance, and in respect of which some understanding of earlier developments may be helpful to current office holders.

The involvement of the fourth group, the campaigners, may for many be short term. Some are likely to progress to other campaigning vehicles, such as trade unions, political parties and single issue pressure groups.  Others may simply have a sense of having ‘grown up’ from student politics, or may view NUS as but one of a plethora of organisations seeking their time and commitment. But against this, there are those whose campaigning zeal remains undimmed by the passing of the years: Fred Jarvis (President 1952-1954), and now in his nineties, is a prime example.

Those holding positions of influence are not always easy to identify in advance of their taking up their influential posts. But leaving contact until they are in such positions may then appear opportunistic, if there is no past relationship on which to build. For example, it might not have been easy to predict that a conference delegate who was President of his local union and a Communist Party activist in the early 1970s would end up as Home Secretary (John Reid); or that a delegate to the 1973 conference and local activist would end up as Prime Minister (Gordon Brown).

It may not be realistic to try to keep tabs on the thousands of individuals who, over the years, hold local office in student unions or attend NUS conferences. However, their contemporaries who held office on the NUS Executive, especially the full time officers, are likely to know, from their personal networks, which of their contemporaries are advancing towards positions of influence. Former full-time officers are thus a particularly valuable resource in identifying those who should be encouraged to see themselves as friends of NUS.

There needs to be an appreciation of what those in positions of influence can and cannot do to help NUS. It is often unrealistic to expect such individuals to be actively involved in campaigning. There will be occasions on which their current interests coincide with a campaign being pursued by NUS, but in many cases their actions will be governed by the priorities of the organisations with which they are now associated, or limited by the constraints that apply to members of the civil and diplomatic services.

An illustration of the limitations was tuition fees.  During the 1997 – 2010 Labour Government there were over two dozen former student union activists serving as MPs, including six former NUS Presidents, two former Presidents of the former Scottish Union of Students, a number of former NUS Executive members, and various former local student union and NUS conference activists. Some twenty of these served as Ministers, half of them at Cabinet level. Nevertheless, tuition fees went ahead.

The role of those in positions of influence is likely to be more general, and discreet. There will be times when NUS does things that are unpopular politically or with the public. This can result in calls for the organisation to have its powers limited, or even to be abolished. In general, such calls come to little or nothing. That may have quite a lot to do with the influence of those previously associated with NUS. They may not support a current campaign, especially one that is unpopular with the public. But they are likely to recognise the value of a properly representative student organisation, and to defend its right to take decisions, and to campaign on issues not popular with the public. They may well recall that NUS is often ahead of its time. For example, the (then) controversial ‘no platform’ policy of the early 1970s actually sought no more than a prohibition on such things as racially offensive language – a position subsequently enshrined in equalities legislation. Similarly, the campaigns of the late 1960s against secret files on student activists sought no more than the rights subsequently enshrined in the Data Protection Act.

Supportive individuals in positions of influence are not limited to alumni. Two examples from my time as President illustrate this. Bill van Straubenzee MP was a great supporter of NUS, both before and after he held office as a Conservative higher education minister. On the other side of the political spectrum, Eric Robinson, a past President of the then ATTI (which became NATFHE and then merged with AUT to form UCU), a reforming educationalist and, eventually, a Vice Chancellor was also a strong supporter. Various officials of the trade unions representing academic staff and others have been good friends of NUS. That is why the organisation is ‘Friends’ of NUS, not solely a network of alumni.

Friends of NUS seeks to involve all alumni and supporters. The contribution that individuals can make may vary with the time of their involvement in NUS. For example, by decade:

  • 50s, 60s, early 70s. These people are now mostly over 65 and retired or semi-retired. They are more ‘corporate memory’ than current influencers, but still have useful contacts. They have extensive experience, some of which is relevant to the issues of concern to NUS.
  • Late 70s, 80s and 90s. These people are in the prime of their careers. They are the key senior influencers and may include MPs, Ministers, senior civil servants, Vice-Chancellors, heads of educational organisations, etc.
  • 2000 onwards. The under 40s, young and upcoming. Establishing themselves in their careers, some already in Parliament and in positions of influence as advisors and policy makers. The next generation of key, senior influencers.

From whichever generation of student activists you come, there is a place in Friends of NUS for you. Whether your contribution is that of an influencer, an advisor, a campaigner or as a custodian of collective memory, that contribution is very welcome. As the union approaches its centenary, it is as important as ever that those of us whose careers benefitted from the experience gained in NUS play our part in ensuring that future generations of students have the benefit of an effective national voice.

John Randall CBE
NUS President 1973 - 1975

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