I thoroughly believe that Imperial should vote in the upcoming referendum to stay out of NUS. Why? I write as someone who has experience of NUS from being President of Durham Students? Union (DSU). I have only just started at Imperial, but I can speak as someone who was very heavily involved in DSU and had precious few good experiences with the National Union.
There are three core problems with NUS. It doesn?t know what it?s for, it has no forum to decide what it should do and it is incapable of acting when it makes policy decisions. Beyond this, there is a fourth issue that is not so much about the theoretical institution, but the people who are involved. It is highly self-serving, and frequently more concerned with its own internal politics than issues facing students across the UK.
I went to three NUS National conferences ? 2003, 2004 and 2005 ? such are the pleasures of student union presidency. There will be those who will say that Imperial needs a national voice and NUS is where it can achieve it. One visit to NUS National Conference (NC) illustrates how false this is.
My first visit to NUS NC was comparatively better than everyone had told me it would be - sure you had rigged elections, voting cards that you could buy from political factions in return for your support, people on the balcony instructing their faction how to vote, stage occupations, endless procedural motions, votes taking longer than an hour, dismal attendance by the NEC (National Executive Committee - NUS?s top officers), but in comparison to what I was promised this seemed like above par for the course.
Go three times and you realise how entrenched these failings are. Political factions dominate NUS. People grouping together because of a shared-goal of opinions is no bad thing, but at NC all that matters to swathes of the delegates is which faction wins each issue, not the issue/election itself.
Because of the power of the factions, and the amount of noise a small group of students can make, NUS is impotent to represent the "average" (I don?t use this term pejoratively) student. Near riots, screams of "Intimidation!" and farcical votes of no confidence will be brought up at the first mention of the Israel/Palestine occupation, but barely anyone will listen during a student housing debate, and the resolution eventually passed will be so very mundane and anodyne you?ll wonder why you even bothered to vote.
This polarisation extends to NUS's campaigns. The only higher-education funding line NUS will even listen to is the total abolition of fees. This is an attractive argument, but go and speak to MPs and it ruins any chance of a debate ? it made discussion almost impossible when at the Higher Education Act 2004 votes Durham was trying to argue that top-up fees weren?t the way to fund education and we should look at other options, but all the NUS hacks could argue was the same inflexible line - it must be totally free with no payment.
In the three years I was involved the NEC were a supercilious, self-interested group. They would turn up at Durham once in a blue moon, although you will no doubt get the chance to meet many of them in the next few weeks - if there's one thing you can be sure they'll turn up for it's a disaffiliation/affiliation referendum. After this initial flurry, Imperial would see very little input from the NEC, yet we?d be paying them tens of thousands of pounds a year.
In fact finances are a major problem in NUS with many (most?) affiliated institutions underpaying leaving NUS with a massive deficit (the truly incompetent spending of money by the NEC also does little to ameliorate this issue). Even the NUS Treasurer 2004/05 (Martin Ings, an uncharacteristically honest and hard working NEC member) would often look despairing as he read out the latest batch of NUS expenditure.
Surely, though, as I?m sure the pro-camp will rightly say, Imperial needs national representation. Especially as the relationship with the University of London draws to a close, it?s vital we can speak up and be counted.
I couldn?t agree more, but NUS isn?t capable of being that forum. We should look at working with comparable institutions; strong independent unions working together, co-ordinating campaigns and lobbying. We're ideally situated to meet regularly with relevant MPs ? at the mass lobbies of Parliament NUS organises the turnout is often embarrassing ? we will be more effective acting without the cumbersome monolith.
The pro-camp will idealistically talk about the voice NUS will offer us, the solidarity we'll develop, the resources for union officers and the benefits for every student. We are only able, however, to join one version of NUS ? the real-world version, and that couldn't be further from the ideals that it should espouse.
NUS has much to gain from Imperial joining, yet we have little to tempt us bar the chance of 10% off at Topshop. Let?s save our cash, our time and the trips to Blackpool, and instead plough that resource into working actively with other unions and improving services right here.