Well, well, what an interesting conference that turned out to be. A far cry from the "most right-wing conference" seen last year, this year's was far more finely balanced. By the end of the first day there were mutterings of mass disaffiliations, with Imperial's delegation absolutely livid by the end of the second day.
Indeed, this conference demonstrated some of the horror stories discussed in the past: racist and homophobic incidents, time wasted on pointless posturing speeches, fighting between factions, elections with no real choice and people who take themselves far too seriously.
Of course, all through this review it must be remembered that the NUS is not all about conference. Although that is where policy is set, the organisation also provides staff support and training.
What follows is an account of what was discussed, what the results were and the views of some of our delegates. You elected me to go on the basis that I'd report back, so here it comes! You'll be pleased to know that normal service on Live! will be resumed shortly, as this concludes our coverage of conference.
Elections were interspersed throughout the proceedings, but were all of the "foregone conclusion" variety. Incumbent candidates for National Treasurer, Vice President (Further Education) and Vice President (Welfare) all achieved easy victories. The elections where incumbents were unable to re-stand also seemed to be a foregone conclusion, with no credible competition. Labour Students stood current Vice President (Education) Wes Streeting, who beat independent Ciaran Norris by a reasonable margin. The "Organised Independents", another large faction often accused of being aligned to Labour, did not stand a candidate. The election for Vice President (Higher Education) was easily won by the OI's Aaron Porter, with Labour Students not standing a candidate. This had led to accusations of a "deal", so both factions could stich-up the elections and get a winning candidate. True independents stood in most elections, but without the backing of a faction they lack the resources and pre-arranged factional votes to achieve a victory in the main positions - as a result no "real" student will ever be in a position to take a victory.
The proposed reforms fell just 25 votes short of the 2/3 majority required, with nervous faces all round awaiting the outcome. With Imperial affiliating on the basis of a tiny majority - with the argument on both sides being that reform was needed - calls for a disaffiliation referendum are being heard loud and clear. Other universities have also brought up the prospect of disaffiliation referenda, including a number of those on the NUS 'rich list' - those unions (including Imperial) which contribute the most in affiliation fees.
A disaffiliation by Imperial would certainly pose problems for NUS, as their predicted break-even for the first time in many years would become a £40,000 loss. What is rather amusing is that those who were on campus extolling the virtues of the NUS during the affiliation campaign have written their own material for disaffiliation - for the past year they have been calling NUS "out-of-touch" and "failing to listen to real students", in an effort to get reforms through. Those comments may come back to haunt them now - it is no wonder the NUS President, Gemma Tumelty, was visibly upset.
The National Executive Committee appear to have left themselves open to attack due to the way in which the £100,000 Governance Review was conducted, apparently failing to actively seek input from those on the far left. However, those on the far left also failed to submit any constructive changes at the extraordinary conference, despite having an opportunity to do so - changes to the election of student trustees were made to improve the democratic process, yet those opposed to the review suggested no alternatives to the areas they had issues with. Their principle arguments were that the "liberation" campaigns (LGBT, disabled, women's, international, black etc) should be given representation on the trustee board. A number of them were also calling for the retention of Annual Conference and reintroduction of a Winter Conference, or an extra day added to the current one. These changes could have been debated in Leicester in December, but were not submitted.
Given the experience of the Imperial delegation, the proposed reforms would have solved a large number of the problems with Annual Conference, yet sadly it could now take at least another year to see any changes, without any prospect of a consensus emerging.
With the navel-gazing of the Governance Review complete, the discussion turned to education policy, one of the core responsibilities of the NUS. With a review of tuition fees due in 2009 this conference was the time to set policies which would form the basis of lobbying during that review. The NUS is a body with a membership of seven million students via their students' unions, however the vast majority of these are in further education. As a consequence, much of the Education Zone discussed further education policy. This was of little interest - or consequence - to the HE delegates and under the proposed reforms these motions would have been discussed at a dedicated Further Education conference. One of the motions involving Further Education did cause events which shocked both the Imperial delegation and the "green shirts" on the far left: the two groups were voting together.
The NUS is to lobby for enforced education up to the age of 18, requiring people to spend time in full or part-time training or education even if they get a job at 16. Opponents - both Student Respect and Imperial - objected to forcing people to stay in education, preferring an approach which would see better opportunities and information provided to encourage people to stay in education voluntarily. Despite such a broad spectrum of opposition, the "centre-ground" of conference voted to support enforced education to 18.
A number of other reasonably consensual motions were discussed, thankfully with a reasoned debate and some sensible conclusions being reached - exactly what this conference should be about.
Motion 506 was "the big one", forming the stance NUS takes with the government in the coming years as fees are reviewed. The main body of the motion called for opposition to an increase in top-up fees, opposition to marketisation in higher education and campaigning for a "fairer" funding system for students. One of the elements of this was a national bursary scheme, which would see money taken from Imperial's fees to pay for bursaries at other universities. ICU and UCLU tried to convince the conference floor that a national bursary scheme was not the solution, only to be called "elitist" by the Vice President (Higher Education)-elect, Aaron Porter. As expected, the national bursary scheme went through.
Further amendments were supported by Imperial and and passed - these called for regulation of international student fees to stop them escalating out of control and better information about additional course fees (such as field trips).
A motion full of nonsense acronyms also passed, after it was explained what they all were and the motion wanted a reversal of the cuts to funding of those taking qualifications at a lower or equivalent level to ones they already have.
Society & Citizenship
This zone mostly covers areas not related to students, such as opposition to wars/the occupation of palestine etc. This zone appeals particularly to the far left of conference, and as usual special interest groups began issuing procedural motions to get their motions discussed first, wasting time that could have been used to discuss them.
Calls to ban military recruitment were rejected, however conference finished before an emergency motion condemning the banning of student military organisations could be discussed.
A motion calling for action on Darfur saw arguments between the left and the far left, as the left wanted to support the African Union troops on their peacekeeping mission in the country, while the far left opposed any military intervention. Imperial had decided to vote against the motion as it felt the NUS was not the United Nations. The motion passed despite the opposition of the far left, with one delegate making the memorable quote of "we can get further with talking and guns than just with talking".
Another important zone for students, the welfare zone contained mostly sensible motions which were generally agreed with only minor changes. A sensible debate was held, with motions passed calling for better regulation of student housing and opposition of planning rules being used to create "student ghettos". On the subject of nights out and drinking, a motion was passed to support students' unions currently having problems with "Carnage UK", a company which charges £8 to students so they can enter free clubs and get absolutely blind drunk. A number of universities have had problems with the aftermath of Carnage UK events, as they get the blame for the externally-organised events. Carnage have threatened to sue a number of students' unions so the support of the NUS will be greatfully received. A motion also called for unions to encourage responsible drinking, the morning after the NUS-organised "night on the lash".
Strong & Active Unions
The Strong & Active Unions zone covers a wide range of issues related to how students' unions are run and can be supported. It was held late during Wednesday and was mostly text everyone could agree or compromise on. Attempts to get the NUS to produce a guide to avoiding ultra-vires laws were rejected once again, but will surely come up next year. A watered-down motion calling for better support and integration of medical students was passed, but without a requirement to have the NUS representative to the British Medical Association be a medical student.
A motion calling for opposition to new anti-terror laws and proposals for universities to spy on their students was controversial. It included a "fact-finding" mission with a number of groups which most people had not heard of. However, two delegates spoke against it, calling for a sensible policy on national security, rather than a reactionary one. This attracted the anger of the NUS President, who said she was appalled that "white men" were standing up to disagree with Muslim students who were for the motion.
Any Other Business
Finally conference business began to come to a close. Cambridge tried to send back a report to the National Executive Committee, because they felt not enough had been done to promote the alternatives to NUS Extra cards (the "Democracy Card"), as required at last year's conference. Imperial concurred however there were insufficient votes to send the report back.
At the close of conference outgoing President Gemma Tumelty gave a conciliatory speech, apologising if she had offended any of her opponents during the governance review. However, in her informal leaving speech she also criticised the hard-left for opposing things for the sake of opposition, rather than constructively engaging.
View: Jennifer Morgan
I embraced the NUS with open arms. I hoped for a national voice for Imperial. However, I left the NUS Conference 2008 shot down and very much deflated. The possibility of leaving the NUS was never in my mind but what happened at conference has made the situation quite different and what I have seen first hand has shocked and appalled me.
The reform we were all expecting which would pull the NUS out of the middle ages and financial scandal was not passed. Imperial delegates were mandated to vote a certain way for many of the motions so as to make sure we represented Imperials voice. The majority of those mandates were voted against by delegates from other unions. Not only were we tactically voted against but no one was even willing to listen to our point of view. We were discriminated against and made to feel intimidated. We are quite clearly not in the same boat and we should not be too proud as to leave this sinking ship. The NUS does not represent Imperial students. In fact a lot of the motions that were discussed at conference were not relevant to students full stop.
The current NUS executive is terrified that sensible unions will disaffiliate; literally taking to the rostrum and begging unions not to disaffiliate following the reform not being passed. If we do then not only will they lose fighting strength but also a large proportion of their funding which this highly debt ridden organisation is desperate for. However, another chance to reform will not come anytime soon and even if it does the strength of the respect students means it would be unlikely to pass. It?s hard to describe the surrealism of conference. There?s no way a third of British students are respect/far left but there is at least that fraction at NUS. The fact is respect students are politically active, whilst ordinary students are more likely to be apathetic. I am not hard right, I am not right, I am not left and I do not wish to be categorised, but what I am not is a far left extremist and I am embarrassed to be in an organisation in which they are severely over represented. Imperial?s voice is far stronger alone than lumped in with an unrealistic, thoughtless, disrespectful and immature collective.
The highlight of the NUS conference was Chris Mullan?s sunglasses.
View: Kirsty Patterson
I voted yes to the NUS for a National Voice. A voice that has been used to boo and heckle our delegation at National Conference. I am sick and fed up of being made to feel guilty for being white, middle class and enjoying an education in my own country. Something which disqualifies me from having anything useful to say according to the NUS.
I voted yes for representation on Education and Welfare issues. The representation that NUS offers fails to take into account the detrimental affects that self-serving and unrealistic NUS policy will have on our students. NUS are unable to represent our students while they are still arguing about universal grants, free education and where the next national demonstration should be. I also find it disgusting that some so-called ?student activists? believe taking a stand on war in Iran would be more relevant to students than setting a clear agenda on tuition fees ahead of the 2009 Review.
I voted yes to the NUS on a promise of reform. A reform that was defeated in the name of saving democracy by delegates who broke their democratic mandates. Both sides of the debate during the NUS Referendum agreed that NUS needed reform. A more resounding message could not have been sent and members of delegations across the country breaking these mandates is the greatest betrayal of democracy I have ever seen.
The highlight of conference was the Live! ?Guide for Delegates? being ripped up on stage by a Warwick Delegate waiting for a sense of humour transplant.