Up and down the country, students and students’ unions are debating the value of their national union on a scale not seen in recent memory. Outside of campuses, right-of-centre media outlets have seized gleefully on the turmoil undergoing what John Major once called “the last bastions of the closed shop”.
When Malia Bouattia’s election was announced a few weeks ago, informed commentators initially believed that despite the vocal opposition of some groups in some (mostly Russell Group) universities, mass-disaffiliations were unlikely unless a crunch issue caused a split. It is typically tough for independent groups of students to secure a referendum, although the rules vary from union to union – for instance, Hull University Union only requires 50 signatories to secure a vote.
It was assumed that many moderate unions have leaders who, while not supporting the left’s new ascendency in NUS, wished to remain in the tent, challenge the leadership and continue to reap the other benefits of NUS membership.
Nonetheless, the widespread press coverage of Bouattia’s election has led to a wave of vocal-enough dissatisfaction to force disaffiliation votes across the country. Lincoln Students’ Union voted to leave earlier this week, followed by Newcastle yesterday. While the result was close in Lincoln, Newcastle voted overwhelmingly to leave. Meanwhile, after a fraught campaign, Exeter have narrowly voted to remain, as have Surrey at an Annual Members Meeting.
As of May 13th, Wonkhe can confirm that votes are due to take place in the following nine unions:
- Warwick 16th May
- Hull 19th-20th May
- Cambridge 17th-20th May
- Worcester 20th-25th May
- Loughborough 26th-27th May
- Oxford 31st May-2nd June
- York 30th May–13th June
- Durham date TBC
- Bath Spa date TBC
Much of the media attention will inevitably be focused on the outcome of the Oxford and Cambridge votes. Oxford almost left in a referendum last year, only for the result to be ruled void after “serious irregularities” were uncovered in the administration of the vote. Oxford’s membership thus looks to be a particularly high risk; several members of the delegation to this year’s NUS Conference wore ‘RON them all’ t-shirts (effectively calling for people to spoil their ballots) in protest against all of the candidates running for election.
It’s clear that an ‘Oxbrexit’ would be a political embarrassment for NUS and would generate much more press attention than other unions leaving, but it may be explained away by the leftist factions as evidence that more privileged institutions are incompatible with a more radical egalitarian agenda. The students’ unions at both ancient institutions also have relatively small political clout inside NUS and very small financial turnovers, relative to other unions.
However, real damage would be done by the departure of some or all of Loughborough, Hull and Warwick. These are large organisations that pay big affiliation fees to NUS – Warwick, Newcastle and Exeter pay in £50,000 each – and are substantive players in the purchasing consortium that supplies student bars and services. NUS is much less reliant on direct union affiliation fees than it once was, and the purchasing consortium has also been in decline for two decades as student consumption patterns have shifted. However, these large unions all sell significant numbers of NUS Extra discount cards that are an increasingly important part of NUS’s income. Losing that could be very damaging to NUS’ bottom line. Hull is also the alma mater of current Vice-President and leading moderate Richard Brooks.
Expect the overwhelming majority of any future referendums to be in England, like the whole of the list above. NUS has a well-established devolved structure, with separate executives and offices in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. While some long-term ‘outers’ sit in the nations, including Glasgow, St Andrews and Cardiff Met, member unions tend to have much closer relationships with the devolved executives due to the smaller scales involved and the success the organisation has had in winning concessions from the devolved governments.
A question remains about how well NUS can control the national media narrative which is driving all this. Most of the unions holding referenda have moderate leaders who nonetheless want to remain in and reform the national union, but their message about the value of NUS has the potential to be drowned out by the negative press that will only increase if more departures take place. What the union does have is an effective campaigning machine that it can deploy on campuses, but it has never had to deal with so many votes at once. This proved to be successful at Exeter, whilst election rules prevented externals from campaigning at Newcastle and Lincoln.
NUS struggles to get a hearing for its successes in these campaigns – and despite the controversies of today, it shouldn’t be forgotten that NUS has made a deep and lasting contribution to so much of policy over past decades, and gave students more clout in politics and policymaking then they would have any right to expect – given they walk into every negotiation without a single bargaining chip to offer.
All of that gets lost amidst high-profile controversies over foreign policy, no platforming and ‘banning’ of social media platforms, to which the organisation devotes relatively little actual time and effort. However, what these issues have begun to reflect is an increasingly assertive political culture centred around cultural and identity politics. Malia Bouattia’s NUS will dive into the ‘culture wars’ on campuses that divide opinion so fiercely in the US and have begun to do so in Britain (see the comments to Jim Dickinson’s recent piece on Wonkhe). Disaffiliation campaigns reflect the polarisation that such issues cause amongst the student body, and draw attention from where students are united in a common interest.
If those 12 students’ unions currently holding referenda result in several more departures and embolden many more to hold a vote, particularly the richer students’ unions, then NUS would face a very deep crisis indeed. The shortfall in financial capital that would arise might be disastrous. But losing the mandate to speak for the majority of students – the only political capital that they have – could be terminal.