Why the NUS is beyond saving

22 March 2010
As an undergrad I did not pay any serious attention to the NUS, but over the course of my PhD I progressed to skeptic and then outright anti. They went ahead supporting the 2006 AUT marking boycott without consulting student unions, they had so much acrimony over their 2007-2008 governance that newly rejoined Imperial promptly ran for the door, and now in Durham they have shown their true colours when it comes to talking about intimidation.

The Durham situation

The NUS is known for bussing people in when places have disaffiliation votes, and the 2009 referendum on affiliation in Durham was no exception. However the referendum voted to stay in, and the usual thing is for the issues to be considered settled, at least for a few years. Then a horseshoe drops..

Durham debating union had invited Andrew Brons to a debate on multiculturalism. Short version was that it was NUS's threat to bus people in for a protest (joint with Unite Against Fascism, which itself has a reputation for violence) meant there was too much of a security risk, so the debate was cancelled.

For all their talk of protecting minorities from intimidation, this showed the NUS as a bunch of hypocrites who were happy to adopt the same tactics when it suits them. This intimidation of Durham students led to a petition for another referendum on NUS affiliation, and the result of this referendum was a vote to withdraw. I daresay knowledge of NUS tactics meant the campaign for withdrawal was prepared this time.

..What tactics?

The NUS is well known for bussing in paid workers wherever a disaffiliation campaign crops up. And if that is not enough they have also in the past looked at procedural ways of getting a disaffiliation decision overturned (or at least recontested, as happened in Southampton and Bristol).

I want my student discounts

The official NUS line is that you have to buy an NUS Extra card if you want student discounts. However few local businesses actually care about this detail, considering that in the first year of operation only circa 140 Bristol students bought them. NUS Extra was an attempt by the NUS to plug a budget deficit, and based on the accounts I have seen it actually lost money.

What about Bristol?

A few years ago, Bristol had the NABAC (NUS Affiliation Benefits Assessment Committee) report, which was an attempt to quantify the benefits of being in the NUS. Because Bristol (at least at the time) tended not to use NUS-supplied training, the report focused mainly on the NUSSL bulk-buying consortium (NUS unions have to buy through NUSSL). The report is best summarised as having a sceptical tone. Although there were marginal benefits for the union bars, restrictions on what stock was available were detrimental as far as the Union Shops (closed 2008) were concerned.

Oddly enough, the NABAC report seems to have been buried.

What about student finance campaigns?

When the chips were down, the NUS copped it. Back in 2003 NUS conference spent so long debating the Iraq War, they did not get round to top-up fees. In Scotland the abolition of up-front tuition fees was in large part due to lobbying by non-affiliated student unions. I have discussed the NUS graduate tax plan previously, and do not see how they will garner any support in the near future (hint: there is no love lost between the NUS and the Conservatives or LibDems).

Although NUS campaigns about non-tuition costs are well-meaning, they are also way behind the times. All the big rises in base-line (i.e. open market) rent were really 4-5 years ago, not the last 2-3 years. There is a tendency for landlords to grandfather old rent levels for tenants who (maybe with 1 or 2 changes out of 6-12 people) stay on, which artificially lowers average rent figures. Since average rent figures are really only of interest to groups of new tenants, these headline figures are basically useless: Bristol University's own private landlord listing had a significant proportion of flats going for £450+ per person-month at least as far back as summer 2007. Put another way if a major problem starts affecting students in your first year, the NUS might just about get round to highlighting it by your 4th year.

And HOW MUCH is this all costing?

Last time I read into it, Bristol's NUS affiliation was costing £45,000 per year, which to my knowledge was more than double the union's entire activities budget. It also works out at roughly £250 for every single society, which for most societies is a lot. Considering what the union has cut in recent times, one has to seriously question the value for money. And to top it all off:
Joining NUS does not turn a profit.
    -Wes Streeting, NUS President
Looking back at many years as a student, I have to ask: Has the best bit of half a million of union funds being poured into NUS coffers made the student experience any better? I can only conclude NO.