Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Live!, despite any positions I may hold. I was originally going to write this when we got back from Conference, but was too angry. I have had two months to calm down now.
Although this is an article asking you to vote 'No' to continued NUS membership, I'm not going to trot out the same tired lines about NUS being guilty of financial mismanagement, being full of career politicians or having failed to reform. The fact is, the financial mismanagement has been brought under control in recent years and the other two problems, while true, are not the most compelling reason to vote against NUS. I also won't mention the failure to reform in the rest of this article, as I no longer believe reforming NUS will resolve the deep-rooted cultural issues it faces.
The NUS seeks to represent over 5 million students, most of those in Further Education colleges around the country. The rest come from over 100 universities, from different areas and with different priorities. With such a diverse membership, consensus can be difficult to achieve, but the NUS will take a stance even in the face of strong objections. In order to represent "all" of its members (by which I mean "more than 50% of its members"), NUS can be nothing but mediocre, average, run-of-the-mill. The majority of members are not in higher education, and most of those that are come from average universities. NUS does provide a national voice, but that voice is - and always will be - the middle-of-the-road voice.
So where was our voice at Annual Conference? Shouted down by those, including the new Vice President (Higher Education) Aaron Porter, who branded us "elitist". Our crime was wanting to keep tuition fee money paid by our students within Imperial, rather than handing it over to a hugely expensive National Bursary Scheme for distribution to other universities - including the likes of Kingston which have to lie to improve their rankings. The scheme is only necessary because the government regulator failed to ensure universities spent enough of their tuition fee income on bursaries, yet having failed in this respect NUS proposes we give them all the money to dish out themselves. As well as wasting some of this money on bureacracy, it would also ensure there was less for Imperial students.
"Elitism" should not be a dirty word - we should strive to be the best we can, and to get the best we can for our students. NUS seeks an "alright" education for all, taking money away from the best students to give to those on degrees in things like golf management.
Institutional mediocrity means NUS is incapable of being our national voice, no matter how much it reforms. Our students want to be the best, the NUS speaks for the average.
Hypocrisy and Division
One incident at conference showed the culture of division, discrimination and blinkered ignorance which prevails at conference. One motion called for opposition to current anti-terror laws and moves to have universities spy on their students - not because they infringe on personal freedoms, or because they herald the start of long periods of detention without trial, but because in the current climate they are being used to target one particular group.
Some very good speakers spoke for the motion, calling for opposition to these laws. It hadn't occurred to me at the time, but it happened to be Muslims calling for opposition. Two people also spoke against, calling for a wider discussion on national security, as extended detention without charge and additional laws were perhaps required to keep people safe. It also hadn't occurred to me that they were both white males. However, in the NUS it is apparently important to keep track of the race and gender of those speaking.
Tumelty had spotted these "white males" (her words) and condemned them for speaking against the motion, as they could have no idea what it was like to be on the receiving end of anti-terror laws. Perhaps not, but they had every right to express their concerns about being blown up on a train. She turned it into a race issue when it needn't have been one. It was a national security issue - things blowing up affect Muslims just as much as they affect white males, bombs are indiscriminate as the 7/7 attacks showed. It also wasn't that long ago when the #1 terrorists in this country were white males, although at least they had the decency to phone in warnings most of the time. These laws may well have a disproportionate focus on the Muslim community at the moment, but they would also affect whichever ethnic group happens to resemble the next bunch of nutters intent on blowing us to smithereens. Besides, the last person to blow themselves up in a (bodged) terrorist attack was the white male Nicky Reilly.
Rather than having a sensible debate on national security issues, hearing the concerns of both sides, Tumelty chose to discriminate against a group based on their gender and the colour of their skin.
NUS uses racism issues to whip people up into a frenzy, but seems totally unable or unwilling to listen to those outside the clique. Opposition to the British National Party is another case in point - any mention of them whips people into a crazy activist rage, and they all go out waving placards. Everyone says "I condemn the fascist BNP" in their election speeches, and gets a cheer (who would stand up and say the opposite?). When someone dared suggest that perhaps we should take up the issue of increased BNP support with the mainstream parties who are driving people to the BNP, they got ignored. It is people feeling ignored that drives them to the BNP, yet this is what the NUS practices. Now London has a BNP councillor, and these same people are at a loss to explain why their placard waving hasn't worked. The reason is, they can't listen outside their clique: anyone suggesting they should is labelled as ignorant and interfering in the autonomy of the liberation campaign which deals with these issues.
One final thing at conference had Imperial delegates voting with the people in green shirts, the same people who voted against the NUS reforms. Imperial students do not tend to hold similar views to this group, however the proposals by the NUS National Executive Committee were so utterly bizarre and contradictory as to have us voting together.
The NEC have been pushing for the voting age to be lowered to 16, something strongly supported by the Vice President (Further Education) and FE delegates at conference. However, at the same time they were supporting a proposal to make education compulsory up to the age of 18, depriving 16 year olds the option of leaving. Those between 16-18 would have to receive some form of education or training for at least one day a week, or be classed as criminals. The reasoning behind this plan is to prevent 16 year olds making the "wrong decision" by leaving education, because they do not have all the information available to them.
Here we have the leadership of the NUS stating that people are old enough to make an informed choice and vote at 16, yet they are not old enough to make an informed choice about their own education. How can these two arguments be taken seriously when they are so incoherent?
NUS suffers from institutional mediocrity, hypocrisy, division and contradiction. Don't vote 'No' because the reforms failed to go through, vote 'No' because the problems are so deep they wouldn't have mattered anyway.
A culture of excessive political correctness, where the majority are condemned for expressing their views, stifles open debate and prevents what could be important input into the decision making process.
Attempting to represent such a diverse range of students means the NUS cannot be the voice we need it to be, as the bursary issue shows.