Last week, the National Union of Students (NUS) held their National Conference. Three days of agreeing policy, electing officers, and just generally setting the direction and priorities of student politics for the coming year. However, alongside this, one Students' Union was subject to a disaffiliation referendum, with students fighting to leave this organisation.
"Why?" one might ask. Surely an organisation that represents students from across the UK, agrees policy and steers politics so crucially, would be beneficial to all students and Students' Unions? The University of Essex didn't think so, announcing on Friday evening a majority of 59% to disaffiliate.
One of the main issues we saw at Essex, was a clear disconnect between the political aims of NUS, and the political beliefs on campus. 'Essex Leaves NUS' focused on some of the recent political moves of NUS, including spending £40,000 on anti-Lib Dem marketing at the 2015 General Election, and spending £60,000 on a national demonstration that was rumoured to attract only 10,000 students. At a university where the largest political group is the Conservatives, the political disconnect was clear. Furthermore, with NUS' recent explicit factionalism, particularly from those labelled 'Labour Students', 'National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts', and 'Liberation Left', many students at Essex felt that NUS had, in recent years, made no effort to represent their interests.
Finally, most students found that the only knowledge they had of NUS was it's Extra Card. Firstly, this is a fundamental flaw with NUS: that students only engage with it for a free cheeseburger and a couple of pounds saved on t-shirts. But, by highlighting the benefits of other student discount services, primarily Unidays, it became clear that there are other options, which alongside having significant discounts on many brands, actually saves the £12 Extra Card fee.
'Essex Leaves NUS', the name of the campaign to disaffiliate (and in no way related to any Brexit matters) was a campaign run on three main pillars: Fees, Liberation, and Representation. Using statements such as "Let's put money back in the pockets of Essex Students!" and "Let's stop funding an outdated, out of touch institution!" it is clear that finances played a large part of this campaign. However, with damning figures including the fact that the NUS affiliation fee for Essex has increased 49% in the last 5 years, these statements were well-founded. Furthermore, by Essex opting to leave the purchasing consortium a number of years ago, and by never signing up to the online platform offered by NUS, the returns on this fee were somewhat limited.
This referendum comes just 10 months after Essex students voted to remain in the NUS, in June 2016. That majority, of 56%, has since been attributed by the 'Essex Leaves NUS' campaign to the sheer number of NUS staff that travelled from London to campaign, effectively, to save their funding. However, through a change made earlier this year, external campaigners were no longer welcome this time around, and this was a key factor in students voting to leave.
It is not news to many that the NUS has, in recent months and even years, been controversial and problematic to many students and Students' Unions; 'Disenfranchisement' and 'Disengagement' are the words of the month, and representation is hard to find. The word of this season in Essex, however, is without a doubt 'Disaffiliation'.
Josh Gulrajani is the Vice President Education 2016-18 at the University of Essex Students' Union. He was also the 'Essex Leaves NUS' Manager in April 2017. This article was written in his capacity as 'Essex Leaves NUS' Manager, and does not necessarily represent the views of the University of Essex Students' Union.