On the bright side

Wednesday 27-04-2016 - 10:05

As we trundle along in the week after National Conference I thought I owed it to students’ unions to share my thoughts now I’ve had time to digest them.

Lots of things have been written and said about this conference, about NUS, about students’ unions. Much of which was generated in the wild heat of the moment or by people who weren't actually in the room. I know that a rumour gets around the world quicker than the Bath SU President can put on his flip-flops in the morning, so here’s a collection of my reflections in case they are helpful to your forming yours.

Firstly, I want to say that this National Conference was the most pleasant and pluralistic I've been involved in. We debated, we discussed different tactics and passed some amazing policies. On the whole social media was less hostile, thoughts were thoughtful and tempers were tempered. People were genuinely less mean to each other! Thank you sincerely to everyone who helped make this happen.

I'm also really pleased and proud that we passed some significant policy at National Conference around student opportunities (sports teams, societies, fundraising, volunteering and media groups) and the impact they have on students and wider society. We are totally committed to developing, supporting and growing these student groups as we know that they change lives.

Also – we got through all of the Union Development zone motions. That is unheard of, for any zone. We talked about educational representation, SU elections, multi-campus SUs and even Keep Wednesday Afternoons Free (KWAF, KWAF, KWAF). These are all important things affecting member students’ unions – and in turn students – every day. Many elected officers in the room have told me how happy they were to see this focus after the almost total dismissal of UD zone in previous years.

A personal point of pride for me was passing a motion to enable us to enfranchise 700,000 apprentices. The National Society of Apprentices has grown and grown but still isn’t fully represented on conference floor. Now we can finally make this happen.

NUS’ job and our role in history is to build power for marginalised students. Our generation is taking up this mantle and joining the fight for Trans students’ rights. This year, with the support of the women’s campaign, the disabled students’ campaign and importantly the LGBT+ campaign, I’m so pleased NUS National Conference voted to do something within our power – to introduce a full-time Trans Officer and Trans liberation campaign in NUS.

It feels like I can’t open my mouth at the moment without reminding people of the potential threats lining up against students’ unions. In the very near future it is not unlikely students’ unions will be staring down the barrel of a hostile Higher Education Bill, or NUS might be targeted by counter-terrorism legislation, or fall victim to any number of levers the government has at their disposal to reign in the freedoms of students in taking any sort of collective action. We don’t know what potential attacks look like exactly, but we do know that the environment around us has been changing for the last two years in ways unfavourable to us. This is part of a wider climate of attacks on civil liberties that extend well beyond our unions.

Whatever emerges our reaction has to be swift, co-ordinated and above all, grounded in positivity. That’s how we won twenty years ago - harnessing the love for students’ unions and the work we do and turning it into public and parliamentary support. The priority motion decided by NUS National Conference was fundamentally about this – giving us a mandate to build up the defence of students’ unions and campaign for the future of our movement, maybe sooner rather than later.

A lot has been said about our election results, in particular the election of our new National President. It’s no secret I was backing another candidate, who I thought was better for the role, but I’m proud that, like all of our full time officers, Malia was democratically elected at National Conference – the largest annual democratic gathering of students in the world. NUS is not more or less democratic than it was two weeks ago, and I’ve already made clear that at National Conference 2017 we will be bringing a new democratic structure to vote through. That process started long before this election season – it started because a number of thought things needed to change – and they will.

So far I haven’t agreed with my new colleagues on everything. I’m sure the feeling is mutual. There are a number of legitimate concerns that will need addressing going forward. But it is now our job, and my continuing privilege, to work together to get the best deal for students’ unions and the students our members represent.

To students’ unions directly now I want to say three things:

  1. Disaffection? Fine. Disaffiliation? That is the wrong way.

    We are saying this every day with the Europe referendum debate.  The parallels with NUS are remarkable. Ultimately we’re all better off working together, and working out our differences than trying to go it alone. Are we perfect? Of course not. Do we have a significant positive impact on students’ lives? Yes. Are we stronger together? Yes.

    The world would be a poorer place, and students far worse off without a strong, united national organisation for students’ unions.

    The only reason, we get in the room – be in national parliaments or government offices – is because we get to say we are the National Union of Students. We represent 7 million people through our 600 members. You don’t get that back if it goes.
  2. The ‘lurch to the left’ that has been portrayed by the media simply did not happen. Of course it’s a better story, but from my point of view the issues debated at National Conference – from FE cuts, to parents and carers, cost of living to fees – are ones that are being felt on campuses I visit up and down the country. Please don’t lose sight of that. We are fighting the good fight, and we must stay strong and united for the benefit of students, education and society.

    If decisions made at conference are surprising then only students’ unions have the power to change that. Conferences are made up of who students’ unions send, and it is all our responsibility to make sure those voices are representative of students.
  3. On concerns, and allegations, particularly from Jewish students. I believe our President-elect is trying to address these issues and I am prepared to give her the time and space in the next few months to set her story straight. I’m sure Malia will convince every member that she can be the President she wants to be.

Listen, I understand the concerns you have – I share many of them. But NUS is something special and worth fighting for. I ran to be Vice President two years on the strength of this belief and because I believed things can change. I’d ask you all to keep me company now. We don’t turn our backs when something is worth saving.

The only people that get mugged off by a more fractured and weaker national union are those we’re all trying to represent – students.


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