Ask most people about the National Union of Students (NUS) and they'll vaguely recollect a discount card, push them further and they might guess that it's got something to do with the student union. What most don't realise is that it is a nationwide body in which they are being represented on matters ranging from student loans to the Islamic State, a rather diverse portfolio then.
The NUS is a confederation of 600 student unions and its mission is to 'promote, defend and extend student rights', and strengthen student unions. This is an organisation that has the power to affect real change and yet it is neglecting this duty and is instead becoming increasingly politicised.
The NUS has five policy areas: welfare, further education, higher education, union development and society and citizenship. These are areas in which valuable progress could be made in improving students' day-to-day lives. Instead it spends its time considering whether or not to condemn Isis, Israel and even MP David Lammy. Why? What has that got to contribute to improving student life.
The NUS is also becoming more and more party political, further alienating the student body. In the General Election this year the NUS spent £40,000 on a campaign targeted against Liberal Democrat MPs. While student loans are a valid interest, targeting MPs more widely should not be allowed. By siding for or against a particular party the NUS alienates the majority of students it represents.
The NUS is a haven for student politics in its most self-serving from. It attracts largely those from the left and does nothing to try and counteract this. In the 2014 Conference one NUS officer managed to shoehorn his opposition to the Tories and austerity into every speech he made. Thatcher's death too was cheered. Regardless of where you stand politically, the NUS should not be partisan.
This politicisation is indicative of student politics in a wider sense, even in our own student unions. Last month, the Newcastle University Student Union (NUSU) Council voted on three questions of politics: 'a vote of no confidence in the Conservative Government... a positive stance on EU membership... and a public declaration of support for Corbyn and the 'fight for socialism''. What right do they have? Especially when you consider that the majority of third years at Newcastle, as well as students in the North East, voted Conservative in 2015. Taking these decisions, in a forum that has no mandate to do so, alienates huge swathes of the student body.
Only 7% of students surveyed in 2014 thought that the NUS were doing a good job, some 35% didn't have a clue about what it did. In 2013 Bristol's Union spent £50,000 on its NUS membership. If Newcastle's spending is anything like that then it may be time for a reevaluation of our membership.
The NUS has the ability to benefit student lives. It recently secured £45million for postgraduate funding, a huge win for students. This however, makes it more infuriating when they waste their time on non-student issues, party politics and estrange students. The NUS needs to recognize its political bias and make a greater effort to be more inclusive and focus solely on improving the university experience. Our own Union needs to reform as well. Partisan politics has no place in these student bodies. Leave it to societies and the debate team.
It's tempting to dismiss the NUS and even the internal workings of the NUSU, you can easily spend your three years without ever really taking notice of them. However, they are is interested in you and shape your experience here at university. The politicisation of student unions needs to stop now.
This article first appeared in the Newcastle University Courier