Giving the Power Away

Thursday 19-05-2016 - 14:24

NUS Wales Deputy President, Ebbi Ferguson, discusses how history was made at National Conference for the National Society of Apprentices

This National Conference in Brighton was pretty historic for the National Society of Apprentices. Conference passed policy that will ensure that the 700,000 apprentice voices across the UK are heard. The student movement overwhelmingly saying that no matter what your mode of study, you should be represented and your issues are worth fighting for. Two National Society members were elected onto NEC ensuring that the campaigns of the full-time officers include apprentices, and that their national union is working on their behalf.


At conference this year we talked a lot about building a powerful movement to change the world. But it's rare that we talk about who has power inside our movement and our own organizations.


But I think to fully understand the gravity of these events; we need to look at where we have come from.


In 2010 the then vice president of Union Development, stood on a stage in Gateshead and asked delegates to think about a conference with thousands of apprentices. Despite being a university sabbatical officer, he was one of the first to understand that there were a vast number of students who weren’t being represented. That something needed to change.


So people started to speak on behalf of apprentices. But for many, championing apprentices was easy to dismiss as rhetoric - ‘buzzwords’ or ‘vote winners’. No one truly understood what the concept of ‘giving a voice to apprentices’ actually meant. The reality of apprentices standing up speaking for themselves was a long way away.


It was another four years before the National Society of Apprentices was formed. 2014 saw the launch of NSoA events throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. NUS engagement with apprentices became a reality, and for the first time we were actually talking to the students that we had talked about for so long.


A year later, Poppy Wolfarth from Asset Training took to the stage and was elected onto NEC. This national conference also saw the first section of NUS policy from apprentices debated and passed - written with direct democratic input from thousands apprentices around the UK. Apprentices were finally given the platform that had been promised to them since 2010, finally being given the space to articulate their issues; standing up for themselves.


The motion submitted by First for Skills was a landmark moment, and the beginning of a conversation. It was the start of a dialogue between the old student movement, dominated by officers from big and powerful students’ unions, and a group of students who desperate needed change.


The problem was (and still is) that apprentices don’t fit the usual way of doing things in NUS. Some apprentices study in a college, but more than two-thirds of apprentices don’t. There isn’t a ‘campus’ where apprentices can form an old-fashioned union - and without a union they don’t fit into NUS’s structures. But apprentices want to get organised, they want to build a union and take up their rightful place in our movement. Right at the beginning, NSoA said they were there to represent all apprentices, regardless of their job, who delivered their training, what industry or what level. Their campaigning was for all apprentices.


So NSoA came up with a different way of doing things. Learning from vocational students’ organisations in Finland, and from trade unions in Germany and Norway, working with the TUC here in the UK, the NSoA leadership team set about developing new practices for inclusive democracy that reaches out to apprentices in their workplaces. NSoA has engaged with thousands of apprentices on big political questions, and has already made a huge impact across the sector. 


We’re all about fighting and winning, defending and extending the rights of students. Well we could take some lessons from NSoA. Basic workplace rights like sick pay. Won for hundreds of thousands of apprentices for the first time, 20% increase in the apprentice minimum wage. Done. There’s a long way to go but apprentices are campaigning and they are winning.


They are breaking new ground for student representation, and the rest of our movement should be taking notes. At a time when some argue NUS’s democracy is broken, that our unions are unrepresentative; the National Society is finding ways to democratically represent 700,000 people who don’t have any union at all. Conference firmly rejected the idea that compulsory general meetings were the “one true way” to express democracy and that the only way to be a “proper” union was to have dull meetings arguing about obscure points of order.


It’s thought provoking that the vote to bring apprentices into NUS membership came just minutes after Conference passed the motion to introduce a full-time Trans officer. Our movement is clearly eager for radical solutions to the way we represent and win for students. We have learned that letting disempowered people speak for themselves, to lead their own movements, makes all of us powerful. We are learning that the best use of our organisations’ power is to give it away.


And that means letting apprentices into our space so they can lead us too. For three years, apprentices went to National Conference without voting rights, being told every time “you’ll be let in properly soon, once we’ve worked out how we want to treat you”. But ‘soon’ seems to have been a long time coming.


And yes, giving apprentices power will take power away from the larger universities in our movement. When the National Society of Apprentices becomes a full member, representing hundreds of thousands of learners, your delegate entitlement may well change. We will all have to stop and actually act on the issues that apprentices are telling us about- not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because apprentices won’t vote for people who ignore them. Of course, for the “let’s do everything the way we always have” old-guard, that’s a scary prospect.


Despite being told all of this, you still passed the motion to bring the apprentices in. The vote was overwhelming and unquestionable.


So, thank you.


We all know Wales does things best so I’m going to quote Nye Bevan, ‘The purpose of getting power is to give it away.’ Giving power to apprentices is the most responsible, most exciting and most democratic way to use the power in our movement. And I sincerely hope that this is the last time anyone speaks on behalf of apprentices.


Blogs, NUS Wales

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England Cymru HE FE development union wales students education national society of apprentices apprentices nus NUS Wales

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