In the second half of NUS National Conference, the debate over reform was completed and policy was passed on education, welfare, wider society and union development.
Conference had already accepted several amendments to proposed reforms – on corporate governance, apprentices and the size and make up of the annual event. Having earlier rejected the retention of the National Executive Council, delegates debated a novel replacement – a National Scrutiny Council (an “NSC”). Meetings of its twenty members (elected by STV, and with guaranteed FE and Womens places) will be held online and it will focus on officer accountability. It will retain the power to agree emergency motions between conferences.
There was then an interesting set of amendments on officers. The #SaveNUSTrans campaign proposed an amendment calling on NUS to restore that Full Time Officer (FTO) both in the transitional year ahead and in the future – and given it had already won the battle to fund it on Tuesday night, there was little to no opposition. Then a clever amendment from liberation officers called on NUS to restore other liberation officers when funding allowed – aiming to put those groups in the front of the queue if budgets improve. It passed almost unanimously, as did another amendment seeking to restore committees to liberation areas.
It means that the policy of NUS is to move from 20 to 12 FTOs – maintaining the NUS UK President, vice presidents for higher education, further education and welfare, three nations presidents and five liberation officers – but abolishing the deputies and womens’ sabbaticals in Wales and Scotland, the full-time international students’ position, and the vice presidents for society and citizenship and union development.
To round the debate on reform off, the proposed officer “cabinet” was renamed the (national) “executive” (committee), and “member directors” were tightened to be required to be students and to be ratified by the National Conference. Given the raft of amendments passed and the backing of the “liberation left”, the amended motion then sailed through its required two-thirds threshold.
There are lingering questions. Many of the reforms buried in the documents were really about corporate governance reform and board control over two new NUS entities which are unlikely to go on to be controversial. But many of the amendments passed look expensive and do water down some of what drafters believed would change the culture. A future row about budgets and liberation officers is now an odd-on certainty. And the question of transitional arrangements will be key, given different options could impact individual officers’ ability to re-stand. A company law meeting will now be convened to ratify the proposals.
After lunch, the event finally got on to debating policy. It was hard to find a speech against anything proposed in the Welfare section, with motions on mental health, culturally competent care, student homelessness, sexual violence and hate crime all getting the thumbs up. There was a spirited debate about the efficacy of rent strikes led by Durham SU, and an interesting motion on institutional bursaries led by Lancaster. And proposals from King’s and Bristol mean that NUS will now campaign for a ban on universities making a profit from student accommodation, and will call on OfS to ensure that universities only offer a place to a student if they could guarantee that there was somewhere affordable to live.
Much was predictable in Education – NUS is still for free education, anti a graduate tax and against hidden course costs. Sadly some of the more interesting proposals promoted by SUs fell foul of the guillotine – postgrads who teach, placement students, fitness to study, admissions reform and university bailouts will all need to try again next year.
In the society and citizenship zone there was the usual smorgasbord of global and political issues, with a fun debate between Brexiteers, Lexiteers and People’s Vote centrists – perhaps inevitably, NUS will continue campaigning for The People’s Vote, working with For our Future’s Sake (FFS), to support migrant rights and non-UK students, and to extend freedom of movement. And there was almost no time left to debate union development – an attempt to shift a motion on the controversial Totum discount card up the agenda fell.
Then the conveyor belt of volunteer position candidates and some emotional closing remarks from outgoing President Shakira Martin, all of a sudden it was all over. It was a strange event in many ways, and whilst focused on change much was the same – the usual complaints about FE representation, procedure and inaccessibility were all present, and whilst Shakira Martin will be pleased with the reform results, she’ll be worried about who has been elected to lead the next stage. Those that had written off NUS won’t be pleased to learn that it will live another day – but there is clearly still debate to be had about what comes next.