Imagine, fellow wonks, if you will, your vice chancellor or chief executive coming to you one day to be briefed on the latest impenetrable funding council communiqué. Deciding what your institution’s or organisation’s opinion should be will involve speaking with experts and respected colleagues, reviewing research, thinking about how the media might tell the story and second-guessing your competitors. It probably includes waving a finger in the air to test which way the political winds are blowing.
It almost certainly does not involve handing the decision over to a thousand-strong student rabble with a three-day hangover. Who know significantly less than you do about any given policy issue in higher education. For a body of professionals hired and valued for our expert knowledge base, NUS National Conference must surely seem to wonks to be the worst idea ever concocted.
Conference is of course about elections, and the HE sector rightly takes a more than passing interest in who is elected NUS President. The President has a vast amount of political power within NUS, and a great deal of responsibility as the face and voice of the national student movement in the UK. But even the President is constrained by the policy set through the democratic process at National Conference.
Without going into tedious detail about the democratic process (fetishists feel free to contact me offline), some of the policies that NUS Conference debated last week included: whether to boycott the National Student Survey (fell), whether to condemn police action in relation to student protest (passed), whether postgraduate education should be publicly-funded (passed) and tuition fee-free (fell) and whether to call for David Willetts’s resignation (passed). Some of the policy passed is about tactics rather than principles as such; indeed, for some delegates the two are intimately intertwined. Thus we find ourselves committed to certain forms of activism at specific points in the year, as well as to publishing various specific research and policy outputs.
It must be admitted that National Conference policy leaves a decent amount of room for manoeuvre. Sometimes conference policy dictates actions in excruciating detail, but much of the time it sketches broad principles and hoped-for outcomes, leaving the detail to the wonks under the direction of an elected officer. It is also noticeable that many of the issues exercising the HE sector at present – such as core and margin – do not put in an appearance in National Conference policy. Our job as staff supporting the work of NUS is to work in the spirit of conference policy, not require a formal vote of the entire membership on every single policy issue.
Those who believe NUS to be a bastion of left-wing extremism should reflect that the back-and-forth nature of the democratic policy process actually makes it tend towards a centre ground of relative consensus. Therefore the NUS wonks, who are invisible during the policy process, but whose job it is to interpret and implement that policy, rarely or never find ourselves carrying out a policy directive we do not ourselves agree with to some degree.
This may be in part because the NUS democratic policy process is one of the few visible manifestations of conviction politics in the higher education sector in the UK. Many of us believe passionately in the principles of public universities. But over the last two years we haven’t seen sector leaders falling over themselves to make the case for them. And little effort has been made to unite the sector behind its shared principles and arguments. Only NUS Conference has the power to demand a specific political narrative from its leaders, political winds be damned. I can’t help but feel that these days, that’s rather magnificent.