There are three main strands that characterise the National Union of Students (NUS): It’s long term role in British politics as a training ground for Labour Party apparatchiks, it’s function as a bureaucracy that both channels student concerns and articulates them in neutered ways, and the disconnect between the full-time apparatus and students on campuses. I divide these only conceptually. In reality, it impossible to tell where one begins and another ends. Rather, they are mutually reinforcing tendencies.
The NUS has long filled the role of a sort of school for aspiring Labour MPs. Few eventually make the cut, but a few years experience in the often vicious arena of student politics helps weed out those ill-suited to the end goal of parliament. The ability to handle the back and forth of debate is, however, only one test. The most important is perhaps that of loyalty. Is it possible to sell Labour Party policy to students? If the actual policy is so obviously repugnant to many students that the NUS is forced to adopt an opposing stance, can you at least make it so ineffective as to mount no serious challenge? These are exactly the skills that will later be required when dealing with constituents as an MP. The ability to say one thing and do another is crucial. Further, when this just won’t fly, the ability to appear to carry out the tasks students have set you without actually doing it properly is of the utmost importance. Following the letter of the task set whilst ignoring the spirit it was set in is a consistent hallmark of the way the NUS enacts policy. One example of this occurred when, at the NUS national conference 2012, students voted for a national demonstration and elements of the leadership later attempted to piggy-back off the upcoming October 20th TUC demonstration. Instead of organising a separate demonstration whilst encouraging students to attend both, they tried to pass off another demonstration as their own. The letter of the policy would’ve been fulfilled, but it would have been clearly at odds with the intent behind it. Here the National Executive Committee (NEC) acted as a restraining influence. In large part, I think, because it is made up of people that are still students and not full-time bureaucrats.
One joke currently floating around in NUS circles is that National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) founder, ULU President and NUS NEC member Michael Chessum is going to become a Labour Party councillor before those in the NUS leadership that are dyed-in-the-wool Labour loyalists and unrepentant careerists. One hopes, of course, that this remains exactly that – a joke – but I mention it to illustrate how the structural pull of a bureaucracy is real. Someone can enter the NUS with all the highest ideals of fighting for students. Separated from the broad mass of students and their daily concerns and experiences, it is quite inevitable that these ideals will begin to slip. Those that enter the bureaucracy always run that risk. The problem is not only that of separation, but that a bureaucrat in the NUS is only required as long as students have a) something to complain about and b) no better way of complaining and seeking action on the matter than going to the NUS. The first point is not so relevant – student concerns being abolished in their entirety is so far off in to the horizon as to barely be worth mentioning. Particular issues – i.e. tuition fees – may come and go, but it is difficult to perceive the end of a student-oriented politics entirely. The second is a more immediate issue. The fact that a full-time officer of the NUS owes the very existence of their position to this let alone their relevance – instrumental, of course, should someone wish for a political career afterwards – provides a structural ‘pull’. Attempts to build organisational forms outside of the NUS that might threaten its position as the solely relevant political body for students on a national level are bound to be discouraged. To encourage them would be to potentially sign the NUS’ own death warrant. Importantly, student concerns must be articulated by the NUS, at least if it is to maintain any relevance at all, but in a way that doesn’t unleash a wave of grassroots student action that might throw up the possibility of alternatives and thus threaten it: student demands become mediated and neutered. There is, then, an innate conservatism to this type of structure.
Both the NUS’ feeder-school to the Labour Party status and bureaucratic conservatism are enabled by what is perhaps the most important element: the separation of the NUS bureaucracy from the students it makes claim to represent. The best way to succeed at the task set above, giving a voice to student concerns whilst simultaneously toning them down, is to discourage the independent action of students and to give the NUS the role of a lobbyist. Students doing their own organising at the grassroots level may imperil the NUS. At the very least they might take action embarrassing to the Labour Party careers of its full-timers. The point here is to transfer agency from the ordinary student to the NUS itself. The NUS will lobby MPs and other dignitaries on your behalf and by having this ‘seat at the table’ will obtain results. The evidence often speaks otherwise, but that is no big problem as long as the myth can be perpetuated. Conveniently, this style of politics also involves aforementioned bureaucrats spending a lot of time wining-and-dining with all manner of successful people: it serves, in short, as a networking tool for a privileged few. Such a thing necessitates the NUS having as little contact with ordinary students as possible. Once a year, at the national conference, a great show of democracy is put on. Sometimes there are even upsets for the leadership. The rest of the year round, however, the full-time bureaucrats are largely left to their own devices. The NEC occasionally has the chance to intervene, but this is no substitute for sustained contact with ordinary students and the day-to-day pressures they experience in university and college life. This separation means that the full-time bureaucrats come to operate based on a completely different set of concerns than those of students on the ground.
These three strands paint a rather damning picture of the NUS. Its deficiencies are rooted in its structural composition, and can’t be rectified and overturned on the whim and fancy of this or that individual. That said, it is hardly as if the NUS has no influence or power. It’s major success in the last few years – even if it is now loathe to admit it – was the November 10th 2010 student demonstration where it brought 50 000 students on to the streets to oppose rises in tuition fees. There is no other force in student politics that could come close to replicating that feat. The problem came when the NUS instantly pulled back as it felt threatened from two directions: a stain on the career of Labour Party hopeful and NUS President Aaron Porter, and being eclipsed by grassroots activism organised from outside its own ranks. In fact, in Porter’s rush to condemn those at Milbank those fears became self-fulfilled. Porter almost ruined it for everyone as his incompetent handling of the situation provided an open display of just how little the NUS was going to put in to a fight to prevent a generation being lumped with vast debt. With that single act he consigned himself to be the first single-term NUS President since the 1960s. Secondly, a number of demonstrations followed organised by ordinary students. The NUS had – if only temporarily – condemned itself to irrelevance, and given rise to exactly the kind of thing that had the potential to eclipse it as the primary field on which student politics are played out nationally. Whilst tens of thousands of students protested outside Parliament on the day of the tuition fee vote the NUS – at this point only Porter and his most loyal cronies – was across the river holding a glowstick vigil. The current President, Liam Burns, presents a more agreeable figure. A crowd-pleaser, likeable enough individual and vicious political pit bull rolled in to one. He has achieved what Porter failed to do: just enough to keep students onside, but not too much to rock the boat. A Labour Party career no doubt awaits.
Not all is, however, lost. The very fact that the NUS possesses the mobilising power it brought to bear in 2010 demonstrates that there is still something here worth fighting for. Slogans appearing on student demonstrations such as ‘Smash the NUS’ are so ultra-left as to have gone right around and become reactionary. It remains a giant of student politics, even if it spends most of the time asleep. Full-time officers, for all the pitfalls identified above, can and do still find the time to play a constructive role. Whether one comes from the right or left of the political spectrum a hearing can still be found in the NUS for ideas that might alleviate the burdens students carry today. It might turn people in to a shell of their former selves during their journey through it, but critics write off the NUS at their own peril.