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The importance of the NUS for representing the voices of students

  • 20 August 2021
  • By Aaron Porter

This week we are, in partnership with FE News, running a selection of chapters from our recently released report, ‘What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say‘, edited by HEPI’s Policy Officer, Michael Natzler. Today’s piece is by Aaron Porter, Council Member of Goldsmiths University, Chair of BPP University and a former President of the National Union of Students in 2010/11. Aaron is on Twitter @AaronPorter.

The National Union of Students is on the cusp of celebrating its centenary. Founded in 1922 in the aftermath of the First World War, at a meeting at the University of London, it was formed with an explicitly internationalist outlook but crucially to advance the cause of students studying in the UK.

Over these 100 years, the NUS has a rich and varied history. There have been monumental victories, including: exempting students from Council Tax; being at the forefront of liberation issues to change the law affecting women, LGBT, disabled and ethnic minorities; helping to create the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE); securing hundreds of millions of pounds to support students and student projects; an instrumental role in the fight against Apartheid; winning the right for statutory student representation; and countless research reports which have influenced governments decade after decade.

But there have also been crushing lows and moments when the very existence of the organisation has been called into question. It has had to deal with hostile governments who have publicly sought to challenge and undermine the organisation, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it has also worked constructively with governments, opposition parties and devolved administrations.

As a former President during 2010/11, my outlook toward the organisation is influenced by my own involvement and a fundamental sympathy for the principles with which the organisation was founded and still aspire towards today. But it is of course an organisation not without its faults – today and previously – which is hardly surprising, given the diversity of the members it represents, the turbulent environment it operates within, coupled with the experience and turnover of its elected leaders.

Before I consider how effective the organisation has been, it is important to answer the question as to whether a national union should exist at all. Critics will say that individual students’ unions can advocate for students locally, or more recently that consumer and legal rights, or the creation of the Office for Students in England, ensures that students are now well protected. But this is to miss the point of why a national union exists. There are issues which affect students irrespective of where they study and are most logically dealt with at national level. Bluntly, even the most hostile government towards students would still prefer to deal with one national organisation rather than trying to deal with a fragmented student population. And unlike any other body, the priorities of the NUS are determined by students and representatives directly elected by students, giving it a legitimacy others do not have. If a national union of students did not exist, I suspect in almost all circumstances it would need to be created.

Whether the NUS is, or has been, effective is a matter of opinion. On the whole, I think it has been a remarkable organisation which manages to marry democracy with evidence, lobbying and direct action, local, national and international concerns, together with education and the societal issues faced by students in their wider life. Each of these choices present options for what the NUS should focus on and where to deploy its resources and emphasis. In some respects, it needs to pay some attention to all of these, but it is the balance which is most important. Ultimately, the NUS is most effective when it remembers what uniquely unites all its members: their education.

But there is also a key dilemma to strike which is more important than any thematic one, which is the balance between pragmatism and idealism. It is perhaps this conundrum which is most difficult, the battle between head and heart. It is probably the accusation that is most powerfully levelled at the NUS, that its priorities can be too idealistic but simply not feasible. This is an accusation that needs to be taken seriously because an obsession with idealism can lead to irrelevance.

In order to combat any suggestion that the NUS is too idealistic, evidence is crucial. And this is true for students’ unions too. You can never have enough information to help you understand your members, their priorities and experience. Throughout its history, there have been times when research from the NUS has started or shaped a national debate, led to policy changes or funding and ultimately helped to improve the lives of students. During my Presidency, I can point to the annual student experience research we conducted and published which shed new light on the learning and teaching experience of students and the Hidden Marks report, a study to explore the experience of women students facing harassment and violence. I would implore the NUS to return to groundbreaking research like this to help advance its cause.

There is a crucial role that the NUS needs to play in supporting and building capacity in local students’ unions. This often is not glamorous or headline grabbing, but it is absolutely essential. This can be anything from helping to form a students’ union in a local further education college, sixth form or alternative provider where there has been no history or tradition of student representation, through to the training and development which the NUS has offered for decades to elected student representatives. When this is done well, it can be transformational to the impact and effectiveness of student leaders across the UK. Most student officers are elected through a combination of their own ideas, being well known and a cause or campaign they want to see advanced. But the ability to be an effective representative and to enact that change requires a different skillset and this is where the NUS can be vital in its help and support.

I know personally that the NUS was formative in the development of my own ideas and opinions. Some of this was reinforced by meeting like-minded people, but just as importantly meeting and debating with others who held different beliefs and opinions. The NUS should offer a place to allow different opinions to be aired and discussed, right across the political spectrum. Sometimes the NUS is criticised for being centre-left in its outlook. This is hardly surprising. Every poll I have ever seen going back decades shows that a decisive majority of students share that view, so it would be much more surprising if the NUS ever ventured away from that. There have been times when it has flirted with the hard left, and hard left groups certainly organise within the NUS, but this a feature of organised student groups across the world. More recently there are some concerns that debate and free speech is being curtailed within the NUS and students’ unions, but in general terms this has not been my experience. Indeed I witnessed and was able to participate in debates right across the political spectrum, from Tories to Trotskyites, and the NUS was all the stronger because of it. During my time as President, the ‘No Platform’ policy was reinforced and I still support a democratic body deciding that for a handful of groups who offer nothing but hate and promote violence be excluded. But this should not extend to those we simply disagree with or find disagreeable. No platforming Conservative politicians or campaigners like Peter Tatchell does not make sense to me. We can disagree with them – they are not advocating violence and we should be able to debate with them.

The fertile debating ground, which for many years the NUS has encouraged and not sought to censor, has in part contributed to an important by-product function of the NUS: the churning out of future leaders across a wide spectrum of politics, higher education and further education, the charity sector, journalism, the civil service and public life more broadly. While former Presidents like Jack Straw and Charles Clarke are most well-known (seven of the 14 Presidents between 1969 and 1996 went on to become Labour politicians), there are leading politicians from all major parties including the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru all with roots in the NUS. Having leaders in public life who understand student issues and the NUS has held it in good stead, but it is less clear whether this conveyor belt will continue to be as influential in the future. It is the willingness to foster debate that has often meant that the NUS has been at the forefront of causes and issues, talking about student partnership long before it became fashionable, highlighting the inequities of access to higher education, focusing on student outcomes or the Black awarding gap – but also using new methods and means to engage with students. This need for innovation continues to be as important today.

It is becoming increasingly plain that the consumer protection arrangements put in place for the higher education sector are not fit for purpose. At times there has felt like an awkward blurring between the boundary and authority of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Office for Students in England – or funders elsewhere in the UK – in holding to account the promises that providers have made. The NUS itself has often found engaging in the debate on ‘students as consumers’ deeply uncomfortable, conscious that to focus on students as partners in learning is not mutually exclusive from students as consumers in other respects. As the law and regulation around student consumer protection will surely need to be revisited, there is a question about what role the NUS can and should play and its capacity and interest in so doing.

For the NUS the last few years have been difficult; a combination of financial challenges together with a focus on a relatively narrow set of issues has called into question the legitimacy and credibility of the organisation. We should not underestimate the financial problems the organisation has faced, resulting in the loss of its headquarters in London, a significant reduction in the staff base (around 70 per cent) and a dramatic reduction in elected officers and associated activity costs. The implications of this has not just diminished the organisation, it also has practical implications for the extent to which the organisation can engage and support the sector as it had done previously and it has had to make some difficult choices about where it can no longer engage.

At its heart, the NUS has always been a hybrid of a representative body and a campaigning body. In the turmoil of the last few years, it is clear the campaigning body continues to survive, but evidence of where the NUS as a representative body sits is less clear. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but ultimately there will always be a need for a representative voice to speak on behalf of students. Calls remain for the governance and democracy of the organisation to modernise further and to clarify its representative role.

But these are not unique challenges in the hundred-year history of the organisation. As the foundations are being reset, and as the NUS gears up for its second century it would be well served to look back to its roots. The NUS can continue to be an effective and important organisation for students when it prioritises the uniting feature of its members: education. It should underpin its activities with evidence and research, ensure it is seen as valuable to students’ unions, facilitate debate, continue to innovate and be wise in its choice between idealism and pragmatism.

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