A Referendum is to be held to decide whether The Students’ Guild should disaffiliate from the National Union of Students (NUS) for the second time in less than 18 months, after a Sabbatical election candidate proposed a Manifesto Idea to leave the Union on 23 February.
The vote to decide whether to stay in the NUS will take place between 2 May and 13 May, with at least 900 votes required for the referendum to be legitimate. In order for the Guild to leave the NUS, a simply majority of 51 per cent of students will need to vote in favour of disaffiliation. The options on the Idea will be the same as for all other Student Ideas (Strongly Agree / Agree / Neutral / Disagree / Strongly Disagree and Confused), with a vote to decide the exact wording of the referendum question taking place in April.
As part of a new ‘Reward and Recognition’ scheme launched following last year’s Sabbatical elections, for every 450 votes received by a student who does not go on to win the election, a Manifesto Idea – the equivalent of a Student Idea that passes automatically – is granted to the candidate to start a project. Proposed projects costing less than £1000 require that the candidate received a minimum of 450 votes in the Sabbatical elections, but those over this threshold are only granted to candidates who received over 900 first preferences. The NUS affiliation vote was chosen by Paul Rota, who ran for the position of VP Welfare & Diversity this year, as a Manifesto Idea.
Commenting on the decision to call the referendum, Rota said: “Last year, the NUS leave vote failed on the promise that there would be substantial reform in the NUS. There was not.
“We see NUS officers working with extremist group CAGE – a group who supported Jihadi John; we see the No-Platforming of LGBTQ+ and anti-racism activists Peter Tatchell and Hope Not Hate; we see the NUS spending tens of thousands of student money campaigning against the Liberal Democrats. And all the while, the NUS have been deliberately and maliciously blocking ‘One Person One Vote’, the one motion that would bring true democracy to the NUS.”
Rota, who finished last in the VP Welfare & Diversity election, also stated during the election debates that he wanted “to tear down the Guild not become part of it”.
The Students’ Guild last held an NUS referendum in December 2014, with 78 per cent of students voting to stay with the organisation. Due to the financial costs associated with disaffiliation, a majority of 66 per cent was required in order for the Guild to leave the Union, a significantly higher figure than the simple majority needed in the upcoming vote. The lower percentage now required for this year’s referendum is due to changes made when Student Votes were absorbed into the Ideas system by the Guild.
President of Labour Students John Chilvers, who lead the campaign to remain in the NUS in 2014, told Exeposé: “It is a farce that we’re having another referendum after we received 78% of the vote to stay just over a year ago but we are determined to come back and fight once more.”
“It’s also ridiculous to hold a vote on something so vital to our student experience here at Exeter when everyone will be busy revising for their summer examinations.”
The Sabbatical Officers have also outlined their intention to campaign to stay in the NUS. Laura-Jane Tiley, Guild President said: “As Sabbatical Officers, we will be supporting the campaign to stay in the NUS. We value the national representation as well as the benefits students receive in terms of good value prices through our outlets.
“We value student debate on this topic, but although parts of the NUS must improve, we want to safeguard our voice at national level.”
Charlie Evans, the proposer of the Student Idea calling for a vote on continued NUS membership in 2014, stated his intention to wait until the NUS national conference in April before deciding which team to campaign for. “I will remain independent until I go to the NUS conference and submit proposals for reform,” he said, “If it is the status quo, then I will campaign to leave.”
The NUS currently has over 600 member students’ unions. However, several unions across the UK have voted in recent years to become independent from the organisation. Imperial College London left in 2008, whilst the University of Southampton has been disaffiliated since 2002. Other student unions not affiliated with the organisation include the University of St Andrews, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Dundee University and Glasgow University. In a student vote in May 2014, the University of Oxford also voted to disaffiliate from the organisation, but remained after allegations of vote rigging. Student Unions associated with the NUS must have the capacity to hold a referendum on membership on a yearly basis if required.
One of the major arguments to leave the NUS purported by leave campaigners is the financial cost associated with membership, with a £50,000 affiliation fee charged by the Union yearly. The stay side claim the financial benefits currently received by membership to the organisation outweigh this cost. If Exeter were to leave the NUS, the Guild would stand to lose a projected income of £22,000 from the sale of NUS extra cards. This income is currently put back into Guild services such as supporting societies, boosting Advice Unit services and providing discounts on food, drink and stationary items across campus.
However, the NUS has increasingly come under fire for what some students perceive as a failure to protect their interests. In 2014, their refusal to condemn ISIS at the Union’s national conference sparked controversy, whilst in recent months their policy to “No Platform” individuals or organisations deemed racist of fascist has been criticised in the press for restricting freedom of speech on university campuses. NUS campaigns to have benefitted students, though, have included overturning the proposed government cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance and becoming the first national organisation to take a stance on gay rights. Last year in Exeter, a successful campaign by NUS Women’s Liberation Representatives led to the removal of ‘luxury’ taxes applied to sanitary products purchased in Guild outlets.
James Beeson & Susannah Keogh, Editor & News Editor