A student conference... to attack democracy

Submitted by Anon on 23 June, 2004 - 12:49

By Alan Clarke, National Union of Students Executive, personal capacity

On 17 June, an emergency National Union of Students conference will meet to discuss structural reforms to plug the union's £500,000 a year financial deficit.
The National Executive Committee has succeeded in getting the 25 student unions it needs to call such a conference - a few, no doubt, motivated by a genuine desire to debate NUS's future, but the majority of them right-wing unions eager for the opportunity to cut back on democracy. Indeed, given the timing of the conference, it could hardly be otherwise.

By 17 June the vast majority of students will either be deep in exams or have gone home for the holidays, limiting likely attendance at the conference to full-time sabbatical officers of university student unions. This will mean a very small event - previous emergency conferences, to discuss previous anti-democratic "reforms" in 1991 and to debate education funding policy in 1996 were attended by around 1,000 delegates, while this one is unlikely to attract more than a few hundred, making any claim to provide a democratic mandate a farce. The gathering will most probably rubber-stamp the Executive's attacks on democracy and possibly go further. It will not be a real NUS conference at all.

There was talk at one point of organising two conferences, back to back (!), so that whatever reforms are agreed could be constitutionally ratified immediately. Democracy is so time-consuming! Luckily, this lunatic proposal has been dropped, but the right-wing are still forging ahead with their plans as fast as possible. Having spent years running NUS into the ground, the right wing is now using its own incompetence as an excuse for attack democracy.

The main motion to be discussed at the conference, agreed by the Executive in May, combines a number of reasonable cost-cutting measures (limiting Liberation Campaign observers, housing delegates in Bed and Breakfast) with the most serious attacks on democracy to be proposed in most student activists' memories.

These include cutting the size of NUS National Conference by changing the quota for calculating delegation sizes from one delegate per 1,000 to one delegate per 1,400 students; cutting the length of conference by one day; and introducing minimum and maximum affiliation fees for student unions.

The first two measures will further sap the conference's strength as a democratic body, increasing domination by university sabbaticals and making it even harder than it is currently for ordinary students to exercise control over their union's leadership; the last will exacerbate the dire situation faced by many Further Education unions, effectively robbing them in order to bribe big, rich affiliates - which in cases such Southampton University and UCL have kicked up an enormous fuss about the size of their affiliation fee - to stay in NUS.

More right-wing colleges such as Bristol University are likely to go further still, proposing (as they did at March's National Conference) to abolish the part-time section of the Executive and make even more drastic cuts in the size of conference. The frightening part is that, on 17 June, they may be able to win.

At the same time, the right wing more generally have rejected proposals from myself to make savings while defending democracy, by opening the books to reveal the true state of NUS's finances, and cut away at the bureaucratic, top-heavy management structure which cripples NUS.

NUS's five "Directors" earn "at least £55,000 a year" (unfortunately, the exact figures are not available).

Replacing them with a three-person co-ordinator team on around £32,000 (the average salary for a worker in London) would save at least £180,000. Concerned above all to defend the bureaucracy in case other areas of the cosy status quo come under attack, the right-wing on the Executive have rejected this as an "attack on workers' rights", apparently forgetting the fact that they themselves have been advocating redundancies for ordinary, non-managerial NUS staff!

The 17 June conference will present the left with a number of tasks. We need to prevent attacks on National Conference and the union's democratic structures, while putting the case for financial openness and cuts to the bureaucracy.

We also need to demand that NUS leaders who call themselves left-wingers, including president-elect Kat Fletcher, endorse these basic minimum demands. More broadly, we need to develop positive ideas about rebuilding campaigning student unions that win adequate block grants to stem the movement's financial decline. All this is a job that will begin on 17 June but continue long afterwards. We need a Campaign for NUS Democracy.

For more information, contact the Campaign for Free Education on 07976 000 940, e-mail alan.clarke@nus.org.uk, or write to CFE, c/o Coral Harding, UELSU, 4-6 University Way, London E16 2RD.

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