Why we need a federal NUS

Friday 21-04-2017 - 16:11

We have to be honest about how our current decision-making processes exclude FE students’ unions.

As I made clear in this video, we have to be honest about how our current decision-making processes exclude FE students’ unions.

Right now, engagement with FE members is pitifully low, especially at a UK level. So part of this process was about asking – what would work for FE members?

The proposal to replace Zones with nine regions in England first emerged in a blog from our Vice President FE, Shakira Martin, on the basis that it would:

  • Reduce the money and time required to engage in NUS democracy
  • FE area review roundtables prove regional FE engagement works
  • The regions align with local authority LEPS, giving FE unions valuable space to discuss their proposals  

So first and foremost, regional gatherings are being proposed to make our democracy more inclusive to FE members.

However, bringing students’ unions in England together on a regional basis has two more real tangible benefits for our democracy:

  1. Protecting the political autonomy of Nations
  2. Making England more like Scotland!

Although the second of these is my favourite, I’ll control myself and take them in order.

Enabling regions in England to set their own policy and elect their own officers who will enact it is something I want, it’s something students’ unions want[1] and it’s something students want – especially FE students[2]. I know members and students want it because that’s what they told us but let me tell you why I want it…

Myself and many of my fellow officers and delegates from across the Nations are about to travel hundreds of miles to Brighton National Conference to sit in a room and listen to English SUs debate English policy, then listen to what “UK” officers have done on English policy before we all vote to accept the policy we made at Scotland Conference. As if education policy isn’t devolved, as if transport and housing and social security aren’t devolved. We have to do exactly the same thing at Zone conferences and I don’t see why we should have continue to do it anymore.

These proposed reforms will finally give English college and university students’ unions the same autonomous decision making which works for their students, their student unions, on a par with the rest of the Nations. Moreover, it simultaneously guarantees the Nations' autonomy by making it clear which officers have the final say on devolved issues.

That’s why I can’t understand the amendment to maintain the Welfare officer as a whole-UK role. This doesn’t only ignore that housing, health and social welfare are devolved, it fails to recognise that our political contexts are very different - but more importantly, it (unintentionally) puts the outstanding and sector-leading work that NUS Scotland officers have done on welfare issues in Scotland in a box marked “not relevant”. In the duration of my time as an officer, NUS Scotland has secured welfare wins including:

  • student specific demands in the housing bills
  • a commitment from the SNP to ensure the issues we raised about access to mental health care provision will be reflected in the Scottish mental health strategy  
  • student support fully funded by grant for care experienced students under the age of 25

Continuing to hold an officer for welfare at a UK level ignores the nuance and differentiation required across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and fails to recognise the hard work that we are doing on welfare in our devolved context. Having a welfare officer who is responsible only for England doesn’t prevent us from collaboration across the Nations but in fact creates a structure to encourage that, by putting all of us working on welfare issues on a more equal footing.

But let’s get onto the good bit. One of the strengths identified by this governance review which had in-depth and broad engagement across the UK was that, because of our size, we enjoy a more congenial political culture in the Nations. So Regions may help to redefine this sense of mutual respect and collaboration across English regions too, and let’s be honest anything that makes England more like Scotland is a good thing!

So despite what the amendments submitted may claim, the proposal to remove Zones, federalise NUS and establish regions across England is an unequivocal good thing for Scotland, it’s a good thing for FE and a good thing for NUS democracy.

Vonnie Sandlan
NUS Scotland President


[1] 62 per cent of members support bringing SUs together on a regional basis - only 6 per cent were wholly against the principle

[2] 68 per cent of all students and 73 per cent of FE students NUS surveyed agreed NUS should set policy and elect officers specific to England


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