25/03/2013 12:50 GMT | Updated 04/03/2014 08:59 GMT

Has The NUS Had Its Day? Students Say Union Is Unfit For Purpose

For more than 100 years the National Union of Students has been the mouthpiece for university students but now, despite warnings of the consequences of undermining the union, some are looking for alternatives.

The cataclysmic 2010 tuition fees protest was damaging to the NUS on both sides; outsiders condemned students for their violent attack on the Conservative headquarters, while insiders turned on their union, saying it had let them down.

Syndicalist Students, a group founded by students, is just one of several grassroot organisations who are actively searching for ways to "move forward".

Tim Berkman, a Bristol University student and member of the Syndicalists, told the Huffington Post UK the NUS was "bureaucratic, and dominated by people who want to get a career in politics rather than change anything" - referring to past NUS presidents such as Jack Straw, Stephen Twigg and Labour MP Jim Murphy.

"Most students don't want to sit through long meetings with politicians - we want to take action," Berkman says. "We can do this much better without the people who claim to 'represent' us or 'lead' us - we don't need them.

"Student debt, privatisation, education cuts, and huge rents all need to be opposed. The NUS is not doing, and cannot do, this effectively."

Syndicalists is working on creating an alternative, although Berkman, who is keen to point out he doesn't speak on behalf of the group, says he doesn't think they are there yet.

"Most of the people I talk to are interested in doing things differently - through direct action rather than pointless bureaucracy and careerist politicians," he adds. "The problem is trying to find causes and types of action that will get all of these people together in one place."

Rachel Wenstone, the NUS' vice president for higher education, warns criticising the union is damaging.

"Overwhelmingly the majority of students' unions are affiliated to the NUS," she told HuffPost UK. "I would expect those who oppose the NUS are obsessed with undergraduate funding for higher education. If that's your priority then you're probably going to be upset because of where we are with the current climate.

"When you look at everything else we've done, for example with London Metropolitan University, we were the only organisation standing up for those 2,000 students. We took a huge risk and put in a huge amount of money to stand up for them in court. We changed the law that day."

The NUS is keen to point out in 2012, six existing NUS-affiliate student unions voted to stay affiliated, with an average 85% "yes vote", while no current affiliates voted to leave, one non-affiliated voted to join. Additionally, the NUS was voted 50th in The Beans Group top 100 youth brands.

"If you view the world of education through a very narrow lense you're going to be miffed, because we do so much more than that. There will always be people upset with our policies, that's a democracy. If you don't like what's happening, get involved and change it.

"I don't think people realise how damaging undermining the NUS is," Wenstone adds. "Calling us careerists is a lazy criticism."

In a recent satisfaction survey, 32% of students rated the NUS' work lobbing MPs on issues affecting them as "very positive", while 31% rated the NUS' demo organising skills again as "very positive".

The start of disaffection with the NUS seems to stem from the now infamous 2010 tuition fee protest. The then-NUS president Aaron Porter publicly denounced the group of students who stormed the Conservative party headquarters at Millbank, dubbing their actions "despicable".

Students turned against Porter, who condemned him for "selling out", and rubbished the glow stick vigil the NUS hosted, which attracted "200 people and cost thousands of pounds". In a blog for online magazine Mute, one then-student Sandra Morgan wrote: "If students didn't know what side the NUS was on before, then they did now. We must thank Mr Porter for doing a very good job of making it clear just how irrelevant his union is."

In 2011 Porter was chased by hundreds of Manchester students and pelted with eggs during an appearance at a rally, and had to be led to safety by police.

According to NUS estimates, 52,000 took to the streets to protest in 2010 over tuition fees, yet at the union's 2012 march, the turnout was estimated to be in the low thousands. The protest culminated in the NUS president being yet again pelted with eggs - although this time it was Scotsman Liam Burns who bore the brunt of the students' anger.

A group of students took to the stage to interrupt Liam Burns' speech, forcing the NUS president into the crowd

George Butcher, blogger and student at Imperial College, London, criticised the NUS for "offering no kind of viable alternative" at the recent protest.

"[The NUS] spoke in buzz words and generally put up the worst possible case for stopping the rise.

"It was a case by case basis of how not to run a campaign and as result the only organisation in the country with any kind of ability to stop an unfair policy left itself un-credible and let a generation of young people down."

In a blog for HuffPost UK, Edinburgh University student Sam Bradley voiced his concerns about the NUS' "embarrassing" protest.

"The fact that yet another major student demonstration ended in disarray is an uncomfortable fact for the NUS," he wrote. "Whilst grassroots activists have formed networks, marched through the streets and occupied campus buildings, the union that is supposed to represent them has been invisible, on the national stage as well as the local one.

"At a time when the NUS should have been at the forefront of student campaigning, it has shirked its commitments."

The NUS was heckled by students at the 2012 rally, which culminated in Kennington

Butcher believes university student unions are providing the best alternative to the NUS, saying he is happy with his.

"[My union] generally stays out of mainstream politics and just keep to things that matter to students at Imperial. As a result, they just got 40% turnout in the recent elections - a figure which would make the NUS blush.

"An alternative union could quite easily be started by a few of these organising themselves together to form a competitor," he adds. "It just needs the will and nouse of some sabbatical officers."

According to Berkman, who is also a member of the International Students Movement, the occupation at Sussex University is "already an alternative".

"The Sussex Occupation is going from strength to strength. The question is whether the people that are already doing things can co-operate better to become more effective. I think we can, but it's going to take a lot of work. Another example is the 'global education strike' that happened last year, organised by the International Students Movement - students all around the world, including students from Bristol, took co-ordinated action to 'reclaim education', but the NUS didn't want anything to do with it."

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Last December, Southampton's students voted in a referendum to stay out of the NUS. HuffPost UK published an open letter from several of the "NO" campaigners, which read:

"Liam Burns's declaration in an interview with [student paper] the Wessex Scene that universities ought to be 'safe havens' from opinions that could be offensive is unacceptable to us who believe that universities are institutions of intellectual freedom in which any thought can be expressed and debated."

Southampton student Thomas Steadman told HuffPost UK the NUS "no longer reflects the students it is meant to represent".

"Students are more aware of the world around them then they have been the last few years but are not the hippies of the sixties, unfortunately the NUS has failed to adapt with them and still believes that a march will change everything like that.

"It is no longer fit for purpose. Many of the current and future officers are naive about the real world and how students are perceived. Rather then asking what it's members actually want it listens to a small influential minority."


Butcher agrees: "The NUS' nickname is 'National Union of Socialists.' It spends more time promoting causes that are outside the interests of most young people and instead disenfranchises them by taking political positions.

"The leadership is elected on a tiny turnout so they don't actually represent the people they claim to."

The NUS has come under fire from other unnamed groups, who are expressing their frustration during presidential campaigns. In February, the NUS published a provisional list of president nominees which included the "inanimate carbon rod", made famous by The Simpsons.

"I believe in an NUS that knocks through walls in the movement, rather than builds them." the rod's manifesto stated. "An NUS that fights for the rights of all inanimate members of society, not just meatbags."

Benjamin Beach, who belongs to the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts group which supported the Millbank occupation, told HuffPost UK: "Whilst the militant ASSE Union in Quebec has succeeded in repelling not just fee rises but government attacks, the NUS has failed to organise anything other than toothless rhetoric whilst students and education are under the greatest assault of market forces in living memory.

"When the NUS leadership are clearly more concerned with their future careers, it is little wonder that students are looking to alternatives to an undemocratic, impotent and ossified bureaucracy."

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CORRECTION: We previously stated Southampton voted to disaffiliate themselves from the NUS, when in fact they were voting on whether to stay disaffiliated. We have since changed this inaccuracy.