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The NUS's Contempt for Ordinary Students Leaves Little Wonder Why Many Want to Leave

27/05/2016 10:57

In Student Unions across the country, discontent with the "National" Union of Students continues to grow. In Exeter, despite a narrow defeat, the Leave campaign managed to attract more than 2,000 votes compared with only around 200 in the previous referendum - and recently Hull joined Newcastle and Lincoln in disaffiliating altogether, with the former two votes being by crushing majorities of around two to one. It is frankly not hard to see how we got here. Beyond the scandalous election of Malia Bouattia as President by a small cabal of a fraction of a percentage of students nationally - over the objections of dozens of Jewish Societies which were inadequately addressed to be kind - what we see in the NUS today is a body increasingly cut off from the millions it alleges to speak for. It claims to represent "the definitive national voice of students", yet ordinary students are ignored at best, and perhaps held in contempt at worst.

It should also be obvious why the NUS often appears fundamentally disconnected from the students which they are supposed to be representing and for whom they allegedly speak. In the first instance, the NUS is increasingly open about how it would rather spend its time and money taking divisive, and often fringe, party-political stances in the name of all students rather than debating and passing proposals to help the students they allegedly speak for. This is firstly evident by the speeches of the group's leaders, with VP Shelly Asquith openly rejecting the idea that the NUS shouldn't be political and, worse still, Malia Bouattia declaring that the NUS Conference wasn't about students (but rather it seemed to be about everyone else, except, of course, anyone vaguely right-wing), before the delegates proceeded to elect her President. But it is perhaps more evident still in the motions proposed and passed - which have included official opposition to UKIP, a snap condemnation of the campaign against ISIS in Syria without consulting a single student, and notably its obsession with passing motions in favour of "free education" - an idea that, even if implemented, would be unlikely to affect a single one of the current students the NUS purports to represent given that we have already signed our loan contracts. When Conference time is already at a premium, it would not seem unreasonable for the NUS to decline openly party-political motions in favour of those which actually have relevance to our student experience.

However, the NUS has even gone one step further than this, and endorsed motions that appear to actively harm student interests. Infamously, for instance, it supported a marking boycott by lecturers, and even to endorse all future industrial action by default - rather than perhaps supporting the students whose exams, and even degree classifications, risked being left in limbo because of this. Then we have the NUS's more recent fiasco concerning proposals to cut Coca-Cola entirely from its Purchasing Consortium because the NUS supports BDS - because, when many students complain about a cost of living crisis, the best way to help them is to cut out a large company whose products are popular from the Consortium which allows SUs to offer competitive prices. Perhaps most pernicious is the recent revelation that the NUS spent more than £54,000 - more than the affiliation fee for either university I have attended - on party-political campaigning, and has set aside a staggering £4 million for this purpose over the next 4 years. It is surely not a stretch to suggest that this is the Platonic form of the NUS's actual conception of itself today - not as the "definitive national voice of students", but as a generic far-left protest group, where the ordinary student appears only relevant in order to calculate for how many people the all but self-anointed NUS leadership can claim its fringe opinions speak.

Surely, a body called the "National Union of Students" should instead be helping the masses of ordinary students who would likely rather the NUS debated increasing their contact hours than encouraging a ballot for a "student strike" from what few contact hours some already have, or who would rather see the money sent to the NUS be reinvested in student services rather than in party-political smear campaigns against the Liberal Democrats. Apparently not, however, certainly not according to a bizarre piece by a former SU Officer which to me exemplifies everything wrong with the pro-NUS attitude to its opponents. Firstly, and perhaps most bizarre, is the allegation that all such students are conservatives, and are in fact part of some sweeping political conspiracy to advance the government's agenda. The latter idea is self-discrediting and deserves no further ink wasted on it, and the former is little more than a partisan caricature. In a radio debate on the NUS this term, my fellow Leave campaigner voted Green in the last election, and our campaign was supported by Liberal Democrat and Labour students, including those who had campaigned for a Stay vote in 2014. More ironic than bizarre is the claim that it is anti-NUS campaigners that are paternalists, when that honour surely belong to the NUS which continues to have a No-Platform policy and attitude which has even started to affect veteran civil rights campaigners like Peter Tatchell, and recently - in its "opposition to UKIP"; condemning of the Syria campaign; and obscene party-political spending - seems determined to tell us how to think.

But this contempt for ordinary students goes far deeper than personal opinion pieces from its supporters. It goes even deeper than a member of NUS NEC mocking the idea that NUS money should be spent on students rather than protests to laughter from delegates. Indeed, it is perhaps best represented by, for example, the ridiculous allegation by a Stay campaigner at Exeter at the start of campaigning that we were "the Islamophobic campaign against democracy and students" (because, you know, having a referendum when there is clear demand for one is extremely anti-democratic) and the obscene suggestion in a piece in Yes to NUS Oxford that the leader of the No campaign - a long-time mental health campaigner - was somehow being deceptive on the issue. These are only two examples of the relentless drive by some supporters to characterise all those who oppose it as stupid at best, and evil at worst. Below is a message sent to a student at Birmingham when they were voting on whether to have a referendum at all; space precludes further commentary from me to explain how it is reprehensible, which I would hope is not needed in the first instance.

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It should therefore be no wonder why more and more students are voting to leave the NUS, and even succeeding in bringing their SUs out of the organisation altogether. As thousands of students at Cambridge currently vote, and those at my alama mater of Oxford begin their own referendum on Tuesday, I hope they make the right choice: namely, to leave a Union which is "national" more or less by self-declaration when it in fact holds the ordinary students - who are not mindless zombies, or puppets of a sinister agenda - in increasingly open contempt.

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