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Should Oxford students walk away from the NUS?

  • 27 February 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • On 27 February 2023, students at the University of Oxford begin a referendum on whether their Students’ Union should disaffiliate from the National Union of Students (NUS).
  • Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director writing in a personal capacity, considers the pros and cons of Oxit.

Over 30 years ago, I helped run an NUS disaffiliation campaign at the University of Manchester. Like all good political campaigns, it was huge fun. The NUS, then headed by people like the future Labour Minister Stephen Twigg, was full of ambitious Blairites (before the term existed) and so were easy to caricature. If I recall correctly, there was even a rumour that a senior NUS representative was so inept that they had left their bath running during an important student conference, causing huge amounts of damage to a hotel.

As part of the disaffiliation campaign, we paid a printer to produce some fake Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) posters. We wrote obviously fake humorous messages on them, implying the NUS enjoyed support on the wildest fringes of politics, and then plastered the posters around campus. (In case you are wondering, this made no difference to the result: we put the posters up at 6am and they were torn down long before people emerged for their 9am lectures: the far-left campus groupuscules were active all hours of the day and night.)

I got involved with the campaign for three reasons. First, I disliked the ‘closed shop’ or compulsory nature of student unionism. Secondly, it seemed Manchester was big enough to stand on its own two feet: much of the disaffiliation campaign focused on whether the local Boddingtons Brewery would sell beer more cheaply to Manchester University’s Students’ Union than it cost to buy barrels from the NUS. (This was a students’ union where, a few years earlier, someone had changed their legal name to ‘Free Beer’ to harvest votes in a union election.) Thirdly, I disliked some of the things that the NUS had stood for over time, which seemed to me both extreme and irrelevant to most students.

Nonetheless, the disaffiliation campaign was really about the theatre of student politics – especially among us middle-class arts and humanities students. However, the referendum barely scraped the consciousness of our fellow students, had a low turnout and went down to a clear defeat. Student life continued uninterrupted and I suspect I am now one of the few who even remember it occurred.

A few years later, I found myself working for a senior government minister (David Willetts) with responsibility for higher education who had a soft spot for the NUS and its leadership. They didn’t agree on much of course, but they got on so famously that Willetts, while he was still a shadow minister, had been invited to open the NUS’s new HQ.

Yet not long afterwards, once Willetts had taken up his position as the Minister for Universities and Science, NUS-backed protests against the Coalition’s higher education policies turned into riots in central London. Conservative Party HQ was attacked, the future King and Queen Consort were caught up in it and a Cambridge student and son of a pop star mauled the Cenotaph, for which he was later sent to prison.

The NUS itself focused their anger more on the Liberal Democrats, who were perceived to have broken the NUS pledge they had signed on tuition fees (as well as to have leaked a private email exchange), than on the Conservatives. When it came to policy, it was vacillation (for example, over fees) that the NUS’s leadership of the time most disliked.

I never came to love the NUS but, as a direct result of my experience in Whitehall, I would not back an NUS disaffiliation campaign today if I were a student. This is because students need a voice. Even when NUS members were protesting on the streets of London, we had useful conversations with their leaders about many issues and also funded some of their anti-extremism work.

No hard-pressed official, adviser or minister is going to ring up hundreds of students’ unions let alone millions of individual students to find out what they think. But they might just ask the NUS and, for much of the last 50 years, they have often listened to what they have heard back in response.

That is why it was so significant when, as Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan announced the Government would ‘temporarily disengage with the National Union of Students (NUS) following recent antisemitism allegations.’ Those allegations are now proven and the hard-pressed NUS officials are quite rightly working hard to address the problems.

Sometimes people excuse the NUS’s lurch towards the political extremes on the grounds that their past relative moderation failed, with NUS leaders appearing to win little in the days when they had engaged constructively with government. But this reflects a profound misunderstanding of democracy.

The job of elected policymakers is not to do what it is told by one group, whether that is the NUS, HEPI or Universities UK; the job of democratic politicians is to listen to everyone and then to do what they think is best for the country while keeping an eye on the likely electoral impact.

So if the NUS’s debating points have not landed on fertile soil, it is no good aways blaming the soil; it is also the responsibility of the NUS to find more hardy seeds to plant and better ways to cultivate them. In the current cost-of-living crisis, which is badly affecting students, it is not hard to see where the NUS should focus.

That is now happening, as shown by their recent cost-of-living work (which is useful except – in my view – for the counter-productive call for rent controls). Let’s not forget that if recent politics have been characterised by one thing apart from COVID and Brexit, it is intergenerational inequity. If a better NUS is not a voice to address this, who will be?

One of the best things the NUS has done in recent years is support the biennial Cost of Accommodation Survey with Unipol – the number it includes for the proportion of the maximum maintenance loan that goes on rent is a true killer fact. The answer is 72% and rising. It would have had even more impact if there had been fewer noises-off from the NUS, as these have served to muffle such important facts about life as a student today.

Back to Oxford. If Oxford’s students opt to disaffiliate from the NUS, it is a bigger deal than just about any other institution doing so because the institution is older and the media are obsessed with it.* But that is also why, when students vote on NUS disaffiliation, they should think about the whole sector.

What changes if Oxford leaves the NUS is that Oxford will become a little bit more isolated, a little bit more aloof and a little bit more elite – the same as if, for example, the University of Oxford were ever to leave the Russell Group. It would be ironic if, as Oxford becomes more representative of society, it were to engage less with organisations that knit it together with the world outside.

Thinking back to those three reasons why I supported NUS disaffiliation in Manchester in the early 1990s, they just do not apply to Oxford in 2023.

First, the ‘closed shop’ nature of student unionism. My dislike had long been shared by others. Margaret Thatcher, as Secretary of State for Education and Science, had consulted upon making student union membership voluntary. The photo shows a protest in London against the proposals. (Thatcher is shown clutching a bottle of milk because of her ‘Milk Snatcher’ nickname of the time.)

The shift to voluntary membership did not happen back then so, in the year I matriculated, 1990, the man who is now the Minister overseeing universities, Rob Halfon, went to the European Court of Human Rights about the issue:

As a Conservative, the applicant objects to automatic membership of both the [Exeter] Guild and the NUS which often campaign against everything he believes in. He is unable to opt out, save by terminating his degree course.

Halfon lost the case but won the argument via the Education Act (1994), which allowed students to opt out of union membership and gave students the right to hold a referendum on disaffiliation from any external body such as the NUS, as Oxford Students’ Union is now doing.

Secondly, if Manchester were big enough to stand on its own two feet, it is also true at a theoretical level for Oxford. However, no higher education policy conversation ever sensibly starts with Oxford (or Cambridge) because they are so untypical. ‘Oxford students want X’ carries a lot less weight or relevance than ‘the student movement wants X’.

Thirdly, back in the early 1990s, I campaigned for NUS disaffiliation because I disliked some of the things for which the NUS had stood. If anything, this has been even more true in some recent years, given the problems with antisemitism. So if Oxford had disaffiliated a few years ago, I might well have thought it would have made sense.

But in 2023, just weeks after the NUS has accepted an independent KC-led report about their problems and committed to fix them? It is hard to think of worse timing. If Oxford disaffiliates now, it will have paid its subs when the NUS was out of order and stopped paying them when it started sorting itself out. That would send a very odd signal.

There remain lots of things I would change about the NUS in a flash if it were in my power. I think it probably needs to deliver a ‘Clause 4 moment’. Perhaps the way the antisemitism investigation is being responded to will deliver that. Or perhaps there is a need for an even bigger bang – such as introducing a directly elected President via one-member, one vote?

But those who have done the most to sort out the Labour Party’s antisemitism problem are those who were able to stay in the party to fight while the Corbynistas came and went. So if Oxford’s student leaders really want to see change in the NUS, they would be better getting stuck in and delivering it from the inside rather than walking away.

* Which reminds me of the best higher education joke: Q–‘How do you know if someone went to Oxbridge?’ A–‘They’ll tell you the minute you meet them.’

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