As postgrads, we've been around Imperial for quite a while - 5 or 6 years in fact. We remember the last NUS debate, which was full-bodied and lively, with a sabbatical leading the Yes campaign and an ex-sabb leading the No campaign. The result was an overwhelming 72% in favour of remaining outside the NUS.
This time around things have changed. The key argument is that once we pull out of the University of London we'll no longer have a union bigger than us - University of London Union in this case - to fight our corner at a higher level. Many poor misguided souls feel we will have no voice without joining the NUS, as evidenced by the publicity stunt during freshers week (see the photo on the article). They need to take a serious look at what's going on around them.
The key question to ask, is "would we influence the NUS, or be influenced by them?" The answer is plain to see, if you look at the attitude of certain sabbaticals. The ICU website contains an announcement by Deputy President (Education & Welfare) Ben Harris,99,ICUNS.html of the NUS anti-fees march on Sunday.
Whilst the march is a worthwhile venture, ICU appears to be losing an independent voice already. Imperial's delegation will join the NUS London region, rather than working with non-NUS-affliliated institutions such as Southampton.
The NUS introduces the campaign on its website as follows:
"Top-up fees of up to £3,000 are here. Student debt is at its highest and applications to university decreased by nearly 4% this year. This situation is only set to get worse."
Ben Harris provides the following take on the campaign on the union website:
"Top-up fees of £3000 have arrived on campus. Student debt stands at record levels and looks set to reach up to £44,000. And it's about to get worse."
Much of the text appears to come directly from the NUS, with a small degree of paraphrasing. The impression is of a union whose fees policy is being driven by the NUS campaign, rather than an independent, freely discussed ICU policy.
If our policies are already influenced by the NUS, what would happen when we finally joined? ICU should be defending its own students, not students all across the country. Our lab-based courses require an increase in funding from somewhere, presumably from cheaper non-lab courses. A central national body (the NUS) will be obliged to defend funding for all courses, even though it would not be best for our current and future students.
Not Being Heard?
What degree of representation would we get from a group so fundamentally different from us in their views? While the NUS national conference discusses issues such as foreign affairs, Imperial tries to keep those out of union committees, preferring to focus on student issues instead. We would be one voice among thousands, no more powerful than unions such as Manchester - a union which has not spoken to its Vice Chancellor for several years, because of his stance on fees.
To Join, or Not?
If we join, our own voice gets drowned out by an organisation full of career politicians and those student activists more concerned with foreign policy than student issues. We have no voice that can be heard. What's worse, we might even end up with policies at odds with our needs, due to policies drifting downwards from the NUS. Former NUS presidents - Charles Clarke for example - actively pushed for top-up fees despite the NUS opposition.
If we do not join, we have only our own voice. We will need to shout loudly to be heard, but we cannot be supressed by the views of other unions who's needs our different from ours. We are the 3rd-best university in the country and 9th-best in the world. We have the 4th-best medical school in the world, after Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. We have a loud voice if we want one - look at the fuss over the dress code. That debacle resulted in the Guardian linking to this very website,9830,1648360,00.html, along with coverage on London Tonight, BBC News Online, India Times, The Daily Mail and even The Register. Finally, there was the top-up fees debate from 2002 in which the silent protest was covered by the press.
Let's not forget that the NUS lost the last top-up fee campaign and has had very few successes in England while the Labour government has been in power. A lot of NUS officers want to become Labour MPs (and often succeed), which may have something to do with it. Our fluffy pro-NUS sabbs - ICU President John Collins and DPEW Ben Harris - are also both supporters of the Labour party, along with the leader of the 'Yes' campaign, Alex Guite. When voting, think very carefully about whose welfare these people are looking out for.