Last week saw Ben Franklin (current Union President) and I (next year’s Union President) attend the National Union of Students National Conference 2016 in Brighton.
It was a trip that was intended to inform us on what is going on in the wider student movement and give us the opportunity to meet other students. The reality was that it did far, far more than that.
As our Union is not affiliated with the NUS, we were there as observers and thus had no voting rights. In many ways I am very glad of that. Keeping track of what was going on even without having to stick an arm in the air was a nightmare – and it also meant that I escaped being given hundreds of elections leaflets!
One question that I have been asked a few times since returning has been “Are we going to have a referendum on affiliation?”. The answer to this is not straightforward.
I don’t believe that we should hold a referendum at this time (for reasons that I will set out – bear with me). Therefore it is not my intention to propose one, and even if I did there is no guarantee that the policy to get the ball rolling on that would pass. However, I am one of 23,000+ students at this university with a right to propose a policy. Every single student is a member of the Union, and thus has the opportunity to put forward policy for debate. If it is proposed at the Open Council after the AGM in just over two weeks, every student has the right to vote, and the best bit is that you can vote in advance online in case you can’t make it on the day (shameless plug for the AGM there).
The point is that if students want a referendum and vote for it, then my opinions are irrelevant. Indeed if a referendum were to be passed, then my intention would be to remain neutral and let students establish their own campaigns.
Now allow me to explain why I don’t think that a referendum is the right thing to do at the moment. I will focus on 2 main areas: Policy of the NUS and internal divisions.
Policy of the NUS
The policy that got quite a bit of attention from the media was entitled Safe Social elections. The motion asserts that social media is becoming more and more important in elections up and down the country, but that candidates are being anonymously bullied online. This is a very serious issue that needs tackling with a measured, reasonable response, which is exactly the opposite to the resolutions of the policy, requiring officers of the NUS to contact YikYak, Facebook and Twitter, to ask them to monitor posts during elections at Unions. What happens if they don’t comply? Well, one Union has reportedly banned YikYak from its Wi-Fi . When you don’t get what you want, just ban them.
Another policy that drew some attention was the discussion as to whether the NUS should officially commemorate Holocaust Memorial day. Yes, they actually discussed that, and someone spoke against. To be fair, the point raised was vaguely valid but certainly wasn’t a reason as to why the motion should fall.
One policy that has gained significant attention over recent months is the No Platform policy, which essentially means that officers – or anyone with any title next to their name within the NUS – won’t share a platform with certain individuals or groups. This threatens the right to freedom of speech on campuses. Also, the only way of ridding our world of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia etc is to have those debates and discussions, not brush them under the carpet. Sometimes unfriendly opinions need to be aired and put on record. That is the nature of freedom of speech.
Too often the NUS is in the news for the wrong reasons, and it is policies like these that generate negative headlines. This means that the campaigns that are genuinely good ideas (like the Students not Suspects campaign) fail to get the attention that they deserve. There is an incredible amount of good work that goes on, and if they could just stop dealing with policies like “Safe Social elections” then students might start to see their good work.
During the NUS AGM, a motion of censure was brought against the entire national executive committee (NEC). I covered this on Twitter as follows:
— Alex Hovden (@WheelsOnFire92) April 20, 2016
— Alex Hovden (@WheelsOnFire92) April 20, 2016
To put this into some kind of context in terms of our Union, it’s pretty much like the AGM giving a slap on the wrist to the entire Union Council. Something that hasn’t ever happened to my knowledge. But to the NUS this is nothing new. There were two other motions of censure during the conference against two full time officers (both of which fell), and last July the NEC censured President Megan Dunn. This to me underpins the extent to which division runs deep through the leadership of the NUS, which undermines their ability to properly represent the 7 million students that they are supposed to.
The conference in Brighton has been in the headlines for another reason; the election of the new President, Malia Bouattia. I’m not going to get involved in the “is she anti-semitic or isn’t she” debate. All I can say is that she has been accused of anti-semitism, but during the very brief conversations I had with her she was very friendly and very welcoming. My concern is this: with so many negative headlines, and such a serious allegation to her name (whether rightly or wrongly), I think she has a nearly impossible job to unite the movement behind her.
I hope that I am proved wrong. The fact is that the NUS has so much potential to be a force for positive change in this country. The people involved from the grassroots to the very top are all incredibly passionate and believe in what they are fighting for. But with Exeter Guild having a referendum on disaffiliation in the next few weeks, and so many other Unions like Oxford and York looking likely to hold referenda, this could be a make or break year for the organisation.
One thing is for sure: next year’s conference will be absolutely fascinating!
To read my full blog on this topic please click here.