In March 2023 at a corporate conference centre in Harrogate, hundreds of students from around the country gathered to (in theory) set the agenda for the next year of student politics. This was the UK conference of the National Union of Students, an event that, in my experience as a former delegate, vacillates between incredibly dull and utterly ridiculous. Most students’ unions- including the Exeter Students’ Guild- are members of the NUS, the organisation tasked with representing students at a national level and sending delegates to a UK conference meant to set NUS policy for the coming year.
At the heart of this push were two delegates from Exeter who would pass two of the most important NUS policy amendments of recent years: the creation of an NUS England (passed by Ed Barradell) and the implementation of “one student one vote” (passed by Alex Stanley).
This conference was particularly crucial coming in the midst of two crises for the NUS. The first and most publicised came from a damning report on antisemitism in the NUS and the removal of its president for “significant breaches” of the organisation’s policies relating to antisemitism. Both of these events came only a few months before the conference and gained national news attention leading to the government breaking many of their ties with the NUS.
The second crisis is much more subtle, one of disengagement. The NUS, once a major campaigning organisation able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of student voices, now struggles to command the mass support needed to effectively lobby for students’ interests. Since 2016 twelve students’ unions have disaffiliated from the NUS compared with only three in the fourteen years before that. Despite only taking five seconds to sign, the NUS’s by far most successful petition (on the cost of living support for students) has only attracted around 27,000 signatures. This may sound like a lot but it is less than 0.4% of the 7 million students the NUS claims to represent. Given these facts, it is no surprise that structural reform was on the minds of many of the delegates who travelled to Harrogate last March. At the heart of this push were two delegates from Exeter who would pass two of the most important NUS policy amendments of recent years: the creation of an NUS England (passed by Ed Barradell) and the implementation of “one student one vote” (passed by Alex Stanley).
Though both amendments only called for the policies to be explored for later implementation they were nevertheless radical changes to the structure of our national union. The first would create a regional NUS just for England in line with those that already exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The second would allow all student members to vote for NUS officers rather than forcing them to act through delegates instead.
Both Barradell and Stanley spoke passionately in defence of their respective amendments despite only being given a minute each to do so. Barradell argued that higher education policy was often set by devolved governments and as such English students deserved an organisation to cater to their specific regional needs. He further pointed out that in recent years the existing NUS regional bodies had achieved far better results in areas like maintenance loan increases than the UK NUS had been able to. Stanley argued that allowing all students to have a say in electing NUS officers was not only more democratic but also gave those officers a stronger democratic mandate when lobbying the government. If they had been allowed more time by the conference organisers they may have brought up some of the other common arguments for these reforms. In arguing for NUS England they could have added that progress on English student issues has been consistently undermined by repeated scandals in the UK NUS, something the regional bodies have avoided. In support of “one student one vote” they might have argued delegate elections are poorly advertised (only 184 votes were cast in Exeter last year) and disproportionately empower the well-connected and popular, disenfranchising most students. Additionally, the policy would give NUS officer candidates an incentive to appeal to and connect with all members rather than just a handful of delegates.
If we go into that election represented by a weak and out-of-touch NUS we are squandering a chance for real change.
Both amendments were passed in March and now almost a year later they are more important than ever. Students face crises in housing, mental health, cost of living and dozens of other areas. The general election this year represents one of the best opportunities for progress on these issues in a decade. If we go into that election represented by a weak and out-of-touch NUS we are squandering a chance for real change. These two amendments represent the best opportunity to shake up the NUS and make it once more an effective lobbying organisation for student interests. “One student one vote” in particular is the most radical attempt to combat the NUS’s crisis of disengagement. It has the potential to make the NUS relevant and unifying for all students, not just a small minority and give it far greater power to lobby the government.
Both amendments were passed but whether both policies will be truly considered let alone implemented remains to be seen. For the more radical policy, ‘one student one vote’, little evidence exists of it being considered beyond last year’s conference. This is perhaps unsurprising given the policy’s potential to challenge the current power structures of the NUS. The last time the policy was brought forward by York in 2014 accusations arose that staff deliberately allowed parts of the conference to overrun so almost no time was left to discuss the reform. NUS staff and officers have broad powers to alter or abandon policy passed at the conference which is designed to allow them to adapt to practical constraints and a constantly shifting political landscape. The scope of these powers and their effect on democracy is a topic for another article but it certainly seems the central NUS has little appetite to progress a policy that would so radically challenge the status quo. With NUS England, to be fair, it does seem like some progress has been made and that the policy may be brought back to the 2024 conference for further discussion.
We should be proud that Exeter students were able to have such great success on the national stage. The fact that Barradell and Stanley were able to progress such serious reforms is incredibly impressive and has not received enough attention. But as impressive as this achievement was, it is only the first step on a long path to reform. With another conference coming up in 2024 alongside the elections for a new set of NUS officers and an upcoming general election, this will be an important year for student politics. We need strong voices to drive forward genuine reform and capable and accountable officers to implement it. There is the potential for serious reform from both the policies discussed here and many others. We can only hope that this potential will be realised and that the Exeter delegates elected in the next month will again play a major role in this.