I?ve always thought of the NUS as a bit like Marmite. You either: love it, hate it, or haven?t heard of it. But even amongst the Marmite population, you get this odd batch of people, who don?t really care or have much to say. I hope that I can provide some insight as to why the good people of Imperial College should be just a little bit less apathetic on this matter. Let?s start with a bit of history.
In 2006, the college voted to re-affiliate with the NUS after a long period of exile. One of the main selling points at the time was the prospect of diminished national representation. This was as a result of parting ways from our daddy, ULU. It was thought that without the support of ULU or the NUS, Imperial?s voice in the wider world would be lost; and we would become isolated and unable to campaign with an audible voice. And of course, there were some people who thought that the Holy NUS Extra Card would bring about an unheralded era of student discounts ? this unfortunately did not happen, although the 5% off on Amazon comes in handy now and then.
I can?t really comment on the level of support that ULU used to offer, but from what I?ve heard, it wasn?t much. And that the £79,000 we used to pay them each year didn?t give like-for-like returns. What interests me however, is why was there no furore about ULU affiliation before the whole Imperial and ULU disaffiliation took place? Correct me if I?m wrong, but we left ULU because we decided that for Imperial to progress, we needed to be our own institution, and thus, our motives were primarily academic. It seemed like sacrilege, back then, to mention getting out of ULU.
Anyway, in the end we decided to jump back on the NUS bandwagon. But that wasn?t the end of it. When we joined, the National Union of Students was in the middle of finalising a change in governance. The so called Governance Review was designed to radically change the way the NUS was structured, in an attempt to cut down the amount of time spent talking and bickering, to actually carrying out some work. This is where the problems started.
It?s hard to explain the situation without going into the mundane intricacies of the Governance Review, but I?ll try. One of the main gripes with the NUS was that too much time was spent discussing issues, and not much work was done. The review proposed to centralise power, reduce the influence of factions, and to possibly cut the annual conference from three days to just one. All in the name of efficiency.
The review suggested instead of having one policy and decision making body (the NEC); it would split the work into two. This gave an executive body ? the Senate, consisting of the President and other executive members, and a 14 member legislative body ? the Board. The idea behind this was that the board would provide some accountability and ensure that everything is legally and financially sound. The elected NUS delegates from universities would then draft white papers in things called Zones, and present them to the Board who would see about making them NUS policy, there would be a vote and then the Senate would implement it.
The perceived problem with this structure was that the Board had little accountability itself. Furthermore, Board membership could be manipulated to suit political and personal gains, as membership to the board was not limited to students. External trustees, who weren?t even students, could be appointed onto the Board, which gave a great deal of room for under-hand manipulation. Others were not too impressed with veto powers that the Senate and Board would enjoy. This let them could shoot down anything that was passed up from the Zones, in the name of financial and legal peril. The lack of representation from LGBT, Women, Disabled and Black groups on the Board caused further irritation, as they had dedicated positions before.
Obviously the Government Review had its supporters, most notably the majority of the NUS Executive and from several factions too. ICU was amongst the universities waving the pro-review flag.
And so, at this year?s Annual Conference, the Governance Review was under the hammer. After a long and arduous day of campaigning and debating, the motion was eventually defeated - by a mere 25 votes. Perhaps understandably, the IC delegation from Blackpool returned home, after a further 2 days of gruelling discussion, disenchanted and thoroughly disillusioned. Not to mention pretty cheesed off that the review didn?t get through.
In some ways the call for referendum was expected, anyone who was at the conference would know how much of a joke it was, including me. Yep, I was actually there this year, not with IC, but I was helping out one of the stalls at the conference. And I completely sympathise with the cynicism that the IC delegates expressed. Not to mention the nightmares involving ?delegate? and ?procedural motions?.
What we must realise, is that even though the NUS is a mess, it is a workable mess. And once the mess is sorted out, it is a very powerful tool. The strength of a unified student?s movement should not be underestimated ? just look at what happened in the 60s! It might think that it?s the UN, but it?s up to us to stop it from thinking like that.
By the way, I could find any other place to say this, but I think it?s important to clarity. People say that the NUS talks too much about Palestine, Iraq, Darfur etc, but if you look at the agenda for the conference, all these issues are the VERY last thing that is discussed at conference. In fact, this year only Darfur was able to make the debate as there was not enough time to talk about the rest!
Imagine if there were plans afloat to rid of international students at Imperial. Do you think that Imperial College Union with its limited full Sabbatical staff could muster a campaign to voice our plea? Even if they could, don?t you think that if we could get the entire national student?s body to echo our thoughts that we would be more successful? Is it not naive to think that we are perfectly fine on our own ? only to find that once we are in trouble, that we are actually isolated and without support? People question what the NUS has achieved for us. The trouble is, we haven?t really been part of the process for long enough to see any results.
This all this requires time and money. And Imperial as an institution is a very commercial enterprise that values both. This is reflected in its student body, and we won?t let go of them without sufficient guarantees on investment returns. No doubt one of the main arguments that the other camp will put forward is the affiliation fee. It is a lot of money, but we were paying even more before to ULU.
And let?s not be so hasty. We are a pretty well-off institution and it?s and it?s not as though we can?t afford it. Of course that?s not the main reason we should keep coughing up, and I?m sure that we can manage to negotiate a discounted fee this time round, given the fuss we are making. No doubt that the money could be used elsewhere, but we would then lose our safety net and representational ability.
It is a gamble, but it?s not all down to odds. If we decide to stick with the NUS, we need be proactive and work to make it better, rather than sit back and see what they can come up with. All I ask for is that people make an informed decision. It seems that this referendum has been called as a reactionary knee-jerk response to something that hasn?t gone our way. If we keep up with these charades, Imperial will quickly become known as some spoilt brat that throws a tantrum every time the other kid gets the prize.
And then we might just end up tasting like Marmite.