SUSU to Hold Referendum About Joining the NUS


Union Council this week held a fierce debate as to whether or not the university should hold a referendum on joining the National Union of Students (NUS). The motion was brought to council by SUSU President, Billy Fitzjohn, and after hours of deliberation was voted through. This means that the Students’ Union will hold a referendum to decide whether it should join the NUS at the end of November.

SUSU disaffiliated itself from the NUS in 2003 due to cost and general dissatisfaction with the way the union was run at the time. However Billy had promised to hold a referendum on the issue as part of his campaign manifesto and in his own words “unlike Nick Clegg, I aim to keep my manifesto promises”. The referendum will give every student a chance to vote for or against the union joining the NUS.

It was argued, during the council meeting, that this was not an important topic for students as it wasn’t even mentioned in last year’s Annual General Meeting. Member of the Union Council, Chris Houghton, speaking against the motion, said “There is only one benefit of the NUS which will directly impact students – the student discount. Voters vote for what directly affects them, which is why we’ll almost certainly be part of the NUS by the end of the year.”

However, Chris’s comments were strongly rejected by those arguing in favour of the referendum, Billy stating that it was ‘insulting’ to say that students would not make an informed decision. Billy focused strongly on the fact that he was voted in on a direct promise to provide a referendum arguing that to deny students one “would be slapping democracy in the face”.

Worried that the referendum would yield an unrepresentative response, an amendment was suggested that there must be a 25% minimum voter turn-out for the referendum to pass. This would require roughly 5500 students voting. However, this amendment was rejected by the council.

With regards to the rejected 25% turn-out amendment, Billy said that he was afraid to set a “paper target” that might then stand in the way of what the students chose. “We want 100% of students to vote, but we have to be realistic”.

One amendment on the issue was passed, stating that an independent committee must create an unbiased pack of information regarding the referendum. So, there will be a chance for you to learn all the reasons for and against joining the NUS before you make your decision at the end of November.

The rest of Union Council was mainly taken up with electing various committees for the next academic year. All positions were filled, with the exception of school president for Art and Education, and school Vice-President for Physiotherapy, Midwiffery, Social Work and Social Statistics. These positions will be contested again at the next meeting. Physics President will be decided through an election within the School of Physics, after candidates demanded that they should be elected by their peers.


Discussion27 Comments

  1. avatar

    If you get less than a 25% turnout there is no way the referendum could be considered democratic. I’d argue it needs at least a 75% turnout before you could justify making a decision. Lets face facts must students don’t care about issues they care, as Chris pointed out, about what directly impacts them.

    I very much doubt the majority of students will care about anything other than the discount, plus where will the annual affiliation fee for the NUS come from ? I believe 2 years ago it was a rough figure of £45,000 to £50,000 contribution a year for SUSU to affiliate to the NUS.

    That money will have to come out of someone’s budget, will it be Education, Events, Socities, AU, RAG, JCR, E and E, Welfare or the Media departments who take a hit they can’t afford.

    Also given we have staff in SUSU who already manage to secure low prices from suppliers what will the NUS really bring apart from a discount card that students have to pay for anyway to get the best discounts and some extra training for SUSU Officers. All possibly at the expense of our Societies and AU clubs.

    This is a risky decision and could well end up embarrassing the union nationally with low turnout or worse biting SUSU in the arse and seeing our AU clubs and societies losing much needed funding for no noticeable gain.

    If turnout is less that 25% I would recommend anyone with a say in the final decision considers very carefully about how representative the outcome really is of the views of Southampton students.

    • avatar

      A quick point of note: I (the same Chris quoted in the article) did not vote for the required 25% amendment required for the referendum to be binding. The reason is simple – if 24% of the student population (over 5 thousand) voted in the referendum, it would be an absolute farce to turn around to them and say that their vote didn’t count.

      I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – we’ll be in the NUS by the end of the year. Yes, there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages of being in the NUS, but to the voters there is only one thing that matters.

      You’ll hear me saying “I told you so” in a month’s time.

      • avatar

        Surely if the “yes” team manage to campaign well enough to win the referendum, you cant belittle all their efforts and say it was purely down to a matter of discounts!

        • avatar

          Agreed if the “yes” team manage their campaign rightly and appropriately then this problem will be reduced slightly. It still doesn’t change the fact, however, that the discount benefit is what the majority of students will vote off.

          In an ideal world, everyone would be interested and passionate about national and SUSU-wide issues, but they’re not. This is why it is naive to assume that the majority of students will vote from an opinion on these issues.

  2. avatar

    Hi Name,

    The majority of your points, again, are not relevant to the argument of whether or not we should be asking the students if SUSU should be affiliated to the NUS. You talk about affiliation fee, you talk about departments having to contribute, SUSU staff already maybe securing low prices….These are all issue’s, that you should make a case for in the actual referendum, providing that they are fact. These do not affect whether or this is the right question to be asking students.

    Your points give absolutely no substance to the argument against running a referendum. As i did point out in council, to say “Students will just vote for a card” is not exactly true. Who are we to deny the student body making up their minds for themselves?

    It would be the same as denying a potential Sabbatical candidate to run in the elections because “students will just vote for you because you’re good looking” (the assumption and argument we seem to sadly see every year!)….Would you object to that person running in the elections, something that would be so important to the student body?

    The NUS issue is important to students; Union Council has no right to deny students being asked a question which is extremely important to them. Again, i emphasise that this was a manifesto pledge, and i would have to stand up at the AGM at the end of the year and explain why i wasn’t able to hold a referendum. Imagine how well that would go down for the people who potentially voted me in due to that important manifesto pledge?

    I agree that the higher the turnout, the more democratic any decision is, completely. As i echoed at Council, in an ideal world, we’d have 100% of students voting on such important issues. However to just pull a figure like 75% or 25% out of thin air and to put it on paper Is not the right thing to do in my opinion. We didn’t have 75% of the student body vote in this year’s Sabbatical elections, does this mean you think there should be no Sabbatical team leading the Union?

    I get the sense that you are very anti-NUS, i only hope you use your passion and comments in the referendum and take part in one of the campaign teams. This referendum will be student led, its students deciding what they want, when running my campaign in March i believed it was the time for the question to be asked again. It was the first question asked to me on my President debate “what are your thoughts on NUS affiliation?”…we all answered, and if a referendum was to not be held after i made that promise, I’d be letting down many people who voted me in.

    We also have policy currently in place, ratified in 2007, which mandated UMB to continue to assess the social and economic implications of NUS affiliation, and for SUSU officers to have conversations with NUS officials about the benefits of affiliation. That is the policy that is still very much real; I wouldn’t have stood up and proposed a referendum at Council yesterday after three months in office, if I thought the outcome of yes could severely cripple the Union financially in the future.

    I’m glad issues rose at Council yesterday and people had a chance to express their views, but these are views we should worry about just before and during the referendum. They are not things that should stop us from asking students the question. There were plenty of things that came up which we must keep a careful eye on, making sure the referendum is fair and informative; so I am very glad that council had a healthy debate over such worries.

  3. avatar

    Turnout isn’t an issue; sampling is a statistical device designed specifically to avoid sampling an entire population – actually the bare minimum – while a vote would seek to include as much of a population as possible. This is a crucial difference when talking about ‘representative’ responses. If only one person shows up, that vote is 100% for or against and fully representative, because nobody else cares enough to vote. Put another way, in voting, the decision is made by those who show up, and there need be no statistical consideration made for those that don’t.

    As for the benefits of joining, the SUSU FAQ states that we can enjoy the same benefits as NUS members:

    • avatar

      My take on this is that so long as SUSU do their job in promoting the referendum, which shouldn’t be too hard with facebook, twitter etc, those who don’t vote are still voicing an opinion: that they don’t care enough to spend two minutes voting.
      The referendum will be between every student, like yourself, who actually cares about the issue. The turnout will reflect this, and whatever it is, is the fairest way of doing it. The alternative was Union Council making a decision on behalf of all of us because we can’t be trusted to do it ourselves. There was nothing saying they couldn’t vote for affiliation without consulting the student body. I think Billy’s doing a good thing in letting everyone who cares have a say.

    • avatar

      You speak about needing 75% turnout – thats 10% more than the uk general elections. should those results not count? southampton test had a turnout of 61% – should we not have an MP? In 2001, voter turnout dropped from 72% to 60% because Tony Blair had such a dominant campaign – does that nullify the result and show that people dont care? It doesnt. It shows people are content with going with the general electorate, if people have an actual opinion, they will vote, like Peter says above.

      Also, setting a threshold target changes the ways teams will campaign. The “yes” team will have 2 campaigns to run a) to vote yes, and b) to vote at all! The “no” team can campaign on both the no vote, and a not vote. It would be a skewed, biased referendum.

    • avatar

      Also the benefits go far beyond a discount card – if you were at Council last night you would have not heard a single “for” argument that raised the chance to get a discount. We already get a good discount, those for know that, its an irrelevant point.

      National representation, higher lobbying powers, research help, specialist training for staff, sabbs and reps – those are the gains that matter.

  4. avatar

    Why has this referendum come up? Was there actually any call for it last year? Did it come up at all last year? Or was it placed on a manifesto as a filler, something to wow the audiences with ‘giving you a voice in the matter’, when actually there was no issue with it in the first place?
    And also, Billy says he wants to fulfil his manifesto promise, well what turnout did we actually see at the elections? And he didn’t even get 100% of the vote – only 50%+1, so statistically, not that many people even voted for him – let alone for the referendum, and even if they did vote for him, who is to say its on the basis of a referendum? Similarly, if Billy really wants to fulfil his manifesto promise and give students their voice, he should have had no problem with a 25% target – and should have been fully behind it.

    • avatar

      The referendum issue came up as it was something I, as a third year student, was a little confused as to why we were not affiliated to the NUS; and why the question had not been asked in so many years. It also came up during the President candidates question time on SUSU TV just before elections began, it was the very first question put to us as candidates; so it was even more clear then that there was a debate to be had. I do also believe that i was not the only Presidential candidate who proposed a referendum on the issue.

      I never claimed I had 100% of the vote, nor did I say that every single person who voted for me voted purely because a referendum was in my manifesto. However, what would be the point in writing a manifesto at all, if a successful candidate was to get in office and give up on all they hope to achieve straight away? My manifesto also pledged to try and fix the Cube and create bigger and better Cube nights, would it be acceptable if I turned around and said after getting voting in that I was no longer going to try and achieve that? You cannot make assumptions on what issues in particular made students vote, but an NUS referendum was part of my manifesto and it would be highly undemocratic and wrong of me to not put every effort into delivering that pledge.

      Again, I want 25% of the student body voting, I want 100% of students voting! I don’t think anyone would be against that. That is the dream, we are not going to run this referendum half heartedly, we want as many students voting as possible. However, this percentage was based on nothing and seemed to be plucked out of nowhere at council. Sasha is correct with many of his points and gives real evidence of referendums nationally that raise issues we should be careful about.

      You also have to put it in perspective, an AGM could affiliate to the NUS, and that only needs 250 people present to participate in the vote. 25% is around 5,600 students, we had over 7,000 students vote in the Sabbatical elections this year which was a national record (for a day) but still remains right there at the top of the records. So we have to be realistic, rather than setting a paper target that is not required, we should be doing anything and everything we can to make sure the people who do care about voting in the NUS referendum, are able to; and that we get as many other students as possible engaging in the debate.

      • avatar

        But surely if you want to make sure people do vote, then you should have a target set? You have to admit that if only a small amount of students vote – why should the decision go based on this? I.e even if they vote yes or no, why should this decision hold if not many people have voted for it?

      • avatar

        As a recent graduate and a bit of SUSU geek, I can firmly say I don’t care what the turnout is the fact that there is a referendum which will hopefully encourage more students to engage with SUSU is a good thing in and of itself.

        It’s always good to see someone we elected stick to their manifesto promises, unlike certain national politicians.

        I’m personally against the NUS purely because I dislike the idea of one Union representing all students, I worry SUSU’s voice would get lost in the sea of other Unions. Then again we are a large union and could hold a lot of sway in the NUS if we dived right in.

        Regardless of the Yes or No camp it’s nice to see more student engagement and hopefully some debate. My main concern is around timing, is the end of November really enough time for students to properly consider all the arguments and make an informed decision ? That gives around 4 weeks to get across a lot of information and doesn’t really give people time to consider the arguments in much depth.

  5. avatar

    I have to say I don’t think the issue will be as cut and dry as some of the detractors say. If we can assume apathy will take out the uninterested, the people who turn out to vote will be those with an opinion, and the impression I get from speaking to people is that the majority do not seek affiliation with the NUS.

    It will be very easy for the ‘No’ team to have a line of posters or talks highlighting how many other cards exist for discounts (gift-ed, ISIC) that don’t require £50,000 affiliation costs.

    It seems rather amusing that we pride ourselves as students as being from the progressive and democratic generation, and yet oppose the idea of direct democracy (a referendum) on a topic we may not like. There’s no required turnout for any major election I can think of, be it national or specific to the union (as in the sabb elections).

    That said, I must say I’m surprised that under union rules a referendum is considered binding, not a recommendation for implementation and indicator of support as they are nationally.

  6. avatar

    Due to the fact that Billy did include the NUS Referendum in his manifesto it should definitely go ahead. My main concern is that it is not something I have really ever heard any students voice any concerns about. I’d be interested to know how many students actually voiced concerns about NUS affiliation in the lead up to Billy creating his manifesto. Put simply, I wonder whether this was simply a ‘good manifesto point’ or a genuine concern voiced by students.

    I can’t help but think that the argument which says that an AGM could pass the motion with 250 signatories actually works against the argument for the referendum. Surely, if students cared enough it would have come up already, hence why I agree with Dax’s argument that this is democracy for the sake of democracy. If it turns out that Billy was approached by scores of students about the issue then I take it all back.

    Moreover, I couldn’t agree more that a lot of the argument surrounding this is irrelevant as Billy said it refers to the pro’s and con’s not the referendum happening in the first place. Thus, I feel Chris’s argument about NUS cards is completely invalid.

    • avatar
      David Gilani

      I completely agree, Dan… except that I feel Chris’ argument is valid. (I think) he was saying that we shouldn’t allow a referendum because it won’t be a fair one (because students don’t know all the facts about the effects joining the NUS would have on SUSU as a whole). Students only really know about the ‘discount card’ and so voting wouldn’t be fair.

      At the moment, I agree with Chris and think, for the majority of students, that’s true. But that’s why Daryl’s ammendment went through and why all the media departments have to do our all in the up-run to the referendum… to make sure that students are as informed about the issue as possible!

      • avatar

        Surely that is what campaign week is for? If they are oblivious to something, they will all but certainly hear about it in campaign week if one team wants to push it

    • avatar

      I don’t think Chris’ argument is invalid. It is an argument against having a referendum, not against NUS affiliation. He’s basically saying that the student body will not make an informed choice, they will just vote for 10% off at cineworld and leave union council to figure out how to pick up the financial burden.
      It sounds unpleasant because it comes across as undemocratic, but as usual its a business-minded realist’s argument. Personally, I think so long as the ‘yes’ team do a responsible job, i.e, don’t make it all about the discount, we should be ok.
      I honestly don’t think it not coming up at the AGM says much at all. The AGM, like Union Council is really just conducted between a small number of students who have an interest in these things (slightly broader this year thanks to the AU’s love of drinking at elections). But the average student probably doesn’t even know it happens, let alone that they could raise the issue of joining the NUS there.
      In general, I think most students would at least like to know why we’re not part of the NUS (even Billy is pretty vague on that point), although whether they care about it enough to vote remains to be seen.

  7. avatar

    The combination of extensive campaign work by the sabbatical teams earlier this year and 7000 student votes wasn’t an accident. It was a direct result of voters becoming more conscious of student politics.

    Everyone likes to have their say, and having a referendum will increase awareness of this specific issue as well as hopefully increasing interest in student politics in general – which is great.

    Despite it not being relevant to this particular stream of comments, I for one know that currently, I don’t know enough about the pro’s and con’s of NUS affiliation to comfortably vote one way or the other. I am hoping that a campaign week presenting an unbiased view of these facts will influence my decision.

    I think that there are probably many students like me that presently might not turn up to vote – but that doesn’t mean they don’t care one way or the other and should be lumped in with the ‘don’t care enough to spend two minutes voting’ group as some people have labelled them. It might simply mean that they are undecided on grounds of a lack of information.

    A referendum would inform and hopefully include these ‘grey-voters’ which don’t yet fit into a simple black or white category.

  8. avatar

    If you believe strongly that the majority of students will only vote based on a set of discounts that they are already receiving (I for one have never been refused a student discount when using my Southampton ID card, wherever i am in the country), or a discount they could purchase now anyway (NUS extra) I would be interested to hear your thoughts on why both Durham, and Reading have voted to leave the NUS in the last 12 months. As by your logic the students in those unions should have voted overwhelmingly to remain in the NUS to keep their discount.

  9. avatar

    Is there any evidence about Reading? My brother is there and he says he knows nothing about them leaving NUS. And he’s quite involved in the union so should know!

    For what its worth I think it is pretty shortsighted to say that the discount is the only thing relevant to students. I’ve seen the NUS President all over the TV with all this fees stuff and he’s doing a pretty good job of sticking up for students in my opinion.

    If I vote it will be because I recognise benefits like this, not just the discount card, and I think its pretty insulting to Southampton students to say that’s all we’ll care about.

    • avatar

      After having a little look around online i was probably wrong about Reading, i had been sure I’d come accross an article on it during some research, but I must have remembered wrongly

  10. avatar

    Like Sam, I have never been refused a discount with my SUSU card no matter where in the country I used it, so the argument that joining the NUS would allow us to get a whole range of discounts is ridiculous and dishonest.

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