As students from across the country start to mobilise campaigns to leave the National Union of Students (NUS), both the NUS and pro-NUS Students' Unions are upping the ante. But whilst disaffiliation referendums are being proposed in various universities thanks to student-led efforts, the pro-NUS opposition - with the help of various paid full-time officers - is throwing everything it's got.
After the events of the NUS National Conference this year, in which myself and others saw first-hand just how out-of-touch the "student movement" was with the general student population, thousands of students have petitioned their SUs to bring about referendums giving students the opportunity to vote whether to stay in or leave the NUS. Such examples of this detachment from real student issues included the election of an allegedly anti-Semitic NUS President, delegates arguing against remembering the Holocaust, and conference failing to pass a motion which would grant the 7 million students NUS claims to represent the ability to vote for their national representatives.
So now that two university SUs - University of Lincoln and Newcastle University - have voted to disaffiliate from the NUS, you would think that the reasonable response from the NUS would be to admit its failings and to begin an open dialogue about the dissatisfaction students around the UK are feeling. But you would, unfortunately, be wrong.
On the evening of Lincoln's disaffiliation success, NUS Vice-President of Welfare Shelly Asquith spoke on Newsnight to defend the union. She remained confident that the NUS is "very representative", and argued that NUS conference is "the largest democratic event of students across Europe". But what she failed to mention was that many delegates (including myself, regrettably) are voted with only a small minority of students from their respective universities. There exists in fact an abysmal lack of representation every year at conference, as an exclusive minority of 800 students - less than 1% of students "represented" by NUS - get to decide on policies which inevitably effect the rest of the student population.
There are other intrinsic problems in the "democratic" structure of the NUS which need to be seriously addressed, such as the fact that delegates from Further Education (FE) colleges are able to vote on issues which solely affect Higher Education (HE) students, and vice-versa. But rather than give any of these issues the attention which they deserve, NUS "representatives" have appeared on national television ignoring them.
In addition, a former sabbatical officer at the University of Warwick Students' Union felt it necessary to make this issue an ideological and party-political one, comparing disaffiliation campaigns to the "Conservative plan for society at large" in a blog post this Monday. Lucy Gill, who penned the article, neglected to take on board the huge diversity of these disaffiliation campaigns. The campaign for disaffiliation at the University of Exeter for instance prided itself on its non-partisanship, running the slogan "we're not left-swing, we're not right-wing. We're diverse. Liberals and conservatives." And although Exeter's campaign did not succeed, it fought exceptionally and fairly in the face of a huge pro-NUS campaign, as the NUS made use of resources which far exceeded the permitted budget for both campaigns, such as texts sent out to all NUS extra cardholders, travel costs for full-time NUS officers who were commissioned to Exeter, and various leafleting materials.
Lucy Gill's blogpost arrived not so long after sabbs at the University of Plymouth Students' Union uploaded a photo of them laughing hysterically at disaffiliation arguments. When accused of belittling a campaign which has been led by students for students, Plymouth's Vice-President for Education responded that it was "a joke", and that they were in fact "watching funny cat videos on YouTube". It's refreshing to see that student representatives are taking student concerns so seriously.
It is clear however that the NUS recognises the threat which disaffiliated Students' Unions poses to them. That is why they sent paid full-time officers to Exeter to prevent the SU from disaffiliating - it was an act of desperation. Students had probably not seen an elected officer up until that point as they a) wouldn't have a clue who their so-called "representatives" were, and b) because such a presence could only be the result of a disaffiliation referendum - a threat to the organisation (not the students) which they were elected to serve. If the NUS truly wishes to hold any credibility, or dignity, it should not be so quick to dismiss the serious concerns which thousands of students it claims to represent clearly have.