Student leaders attack democracy

Submitted by cathy n on 16 August, 2007 - 2:56

By Sofie Buckland, NUS National Executive member

At the behest of right-wing student union officers and NEC, NUS is undertaking a wide-ranging “governance review“, aimed at overhauling democratic structures, staffing, funding, and just about anything else they don’t like.

Required to by an annual conference motion, the NEC “mandated“ a steering group to produce a green paper on NUS reform (in reality, the NEC were presented with a board hand-picked by the President, including members of the Association of Managers of Students’ Unions, and a series of pre-decided actions to give the green light).

This paper has now been released, and it’s difficult to criticise — because it gives almost nothing away about the intentions of the leadership.
On the face of it, NUS’s rightwing have a point. They talk about a ‘democratic deficit’ in the student movement, and it does exist. But the language of the green paper lets slip exactly how much they care about democracy — in the guiding principles of NUS, laid down on the first page, democracy isn’t mentioned once. There’s ‘effective and efficient decision-making’ though, suggesting more cuts to Annual Conference, less (!) accountability and more centralisation of power to the NEC, the President and the Senior Management Team.

Those in NUS who want to fix the “democratic deficit” aren’t sitting on the review steering committee. It’s the left-wing who can address the actual problems — of withering student unions’ political culture and democracy, of a serious lack of a fight back and continual capitulations by the NUS leadership, of the bureaucratic barriers set up to prevent grassroots involvement. The democratic deficit isn’t a problem of a few sabbatical officers who want more influence for their ideas in NUS. It’s a problem of a pathetically low level of actual student involvement, and of student activist campaigns growing disillusioned with the NUS and no longer wishing to use its channels to force the leadership to fight.

It’s impossible to separate the failures of NUS over the last 25 years, under successive Labour Students and ‘indepedent’ right-wing leaderships, from this new drive to reform the union. HE students have lost mandatory grants, housing benefit, free tuition and the right ot claim unemployment benefit over this time, and alongside FE students are now facing privatisation of campus services, education run for profit and low-paid casual work to meet the cost of studying. While NUS and student unions do nothing to address the situation of ordinary students, its no wonder very few are willing or able to fight back.

The governance review isn’t a sign that the NUS leadership have suddenly noticed this problem. Since it was first discussed on the NEC at the beginning of the year, it’s been nothing but a cover for more wasteful spending, more attacks on democracy and on the involvement of the critical left-wing. Education Not for Sale has been the only faction to consistently oppose the review both on the NEC and in our propaganda (SWP and Socialist Action members failed to vote against the review or the £100,000 consultant) — we’ve got the long-term political perspective to understand why this review must be challenged.

If this review goes unchallenged and is not stopped we will end up with an NUS even less able to fight for students’ interests than the NUS we currently have. And, we predict, if these type of changes go through the ‘reforms’ will not end. The NUS right wing will take heart and move further against democracy. The entire structure of this review has been set to prevent involvement from anyone even vaguely critical of NUS (the NEC members on steering, for example, are right-wing independents and Labour Students) — we can’t submit decent proposals to their sham consultations, cross our fingers, and hope someone listens.

This is not a consultation but preparation for an attack on NUS democracy – a curtailment in the ability of the membership to set priorities and hold their leadership to account. ENS will continue to challenge the review at every level — if you agree, get involved! Email or visit

Some proposals:

• Scrap the “Governance Review”, claw back the maximum possible costs and conduct a democratic internal debate on the future of NUS democracy.

• Restore Winter Conference and/or lengthen existing conference to allow more discussion and accountability.

• Restore cuts to delegation entitlement

• Defend the ‘Block of 12’

• Reform of regional arrangements; restore Area NUS organisations

• Support staff for Liberation Campaigns — disparities should be used to increase funding for e.g. Disabled Students’ Campaign, not to cut e.g. Women’s Campaign.

• NEC should function more effectively, meet regularly. (E.g. the two month gap in meetings over this summer! Meanwhile management team, including full-timers and unelected staff meets regularly and is the real executive power in NUS)

• Staff protocols should be reformed so that it no longer protects senior management from scrutiny and accountability

• Cut the current massive waste at NUS’s centre and redirect resources to campaigning.

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