Happy 100th birthday to the National Union of Students

As national student representation enters its centenary year, Jim Dickinson tells a tale of tensions in NUS' formation

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s an old and quite dark joke that accompanies the story of how the National Union of Students came into being on February 10th, 1922.

The story goes that students, fresh from the horrors of the first world war and keen to contribute to avoiding a second, resolved that a national body should participate in international cooperation events – all with a view to securing lasting peace.

And it’s been pursuing unrealistic lost causes ever since.

English exceptionalism

Back in 1919, French students had organised a “student congress” in Strasbourg to celebrate the reopening of the university there – and delegates present had got talking about the way in which students might forge international alliances.

Scotland, which had long been ahead of England on student representation, sent a delegation from the Federation of Scottish students – but England could only send a handful of individuals attending pers cap.

That setting of Strasbourg had a mild irony to it. The English delegates will not have realised, but it was a visit some forty years prior to Strassburg by an Edinburgh student called Robert Fitzroy Bell that had sparked the formation of the first incarnation of what we would today regard as a students union in the UK. His friend Otto Schalp later recalled:

We inspected the new university buildings, and outside the door of one of them he noticed a placard relating to the “Studenten Ausschuss”. “What is that” he asked. I explained, and forthwith procured a copy of the regulations of that mysterious body. “We must have something of the kind at home” was his comment, after he had studied the document for some time in the shadow of the great Cathedral.

Bell returned and formed the Edinburgh Student Representative Council, with aims and objects that can be found in most SU constitutions today – to represent students in matters affecting their interests, to afford a recognised means of communication between students and the university authorities, and to promote social life and academic unity among students. Aberdeen, St Andrews and Glasgow adopted the model within a couple of years, and Liverrpool, UCL, Manchester and Leeds followed later.


But while the Scottish SRCs had begun to coordinate nationally on matters of common interest to students early on, cooperation in the South faltered. It meant that England as an organised bloc officially missed out on the inaugural meeting of the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants – held in Prague in 1921 – despite the fact that of the 600 students present, around 100 attended individually from English universities.

As we might expect, French students and thinking dominated an event held on French soil, and things got factional and political pretty quickly. One group, for example, argued that pragmatic advances should be made to students of ex-enemy countries, while others disagreed on principle. And in a tactical move designed to dilute the influence of the francophiles, delegates from Denmark and Sweden begged the English individuals to return home, get their act together and form a proper National Union that could then help them outvote the French.

Assemble on Malet Street

And so they did. Fourteen student organisations – Durham, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, Nottingham, Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Bangor Swansea and the women students of Oxford (!) met in London and signed a declaration with a single object:

To represent past and present students from a National and International point of view, and to fender possible the cooperation of the body of students in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland with the students of other lands”

Exeter, Reading and Southampton were also present – but in a neat nod to the way the sector tends to move in a pack when something new is on the cards, wanted to see how it went for a couple of years before it would sign on the line.

NUS’ first President was called Ivison Macadam – he had served in the Royal Engineers, and returned as a student to King’s where he became student president and involved in the discussions surrounding the CIE.

He formed a “tours department” for student travel that both promoted international cooperation and generated a steady source of income, created an identity card scheme and wrote a letter to the Times that caught the eye of influencers who went on to help fundraise for a building on Endsleigh Street in Bloomsbury.

Shoulder to shoulder

As initial enthusiasm for the peace project waned, NUS turned its attention to more prosaic preoccupations of students. In fact, it wasn’t until 1923 that another object was added to its constitution:

To promote the educational and social interests of students in entire independence of all political or religious propaganda”.

Its first foray into proper national student representation came in 1927, when the Association of University Teachers got in before the vice chancellors and proposed a joint group to work on university reform whose agenda (bar some of the language) has echoes of the issues discussed now – tutorial systems, staff-student liaison committees, attendance at in-person lectures and freedom of speech.

NUS also called for academics to “circulate stencilled lecture notes”, a proposal which was received roughly as enthusiastically by the AUT’s branches as a call for lecture recordings was ninety years later.

Pioneering work on graduate employment, student health, student finance and residences soon followed.

Push me, pull you

To describe NUS and its history – both as an organisation and as a byword for student representation and co-operation more generally – is to talk of tensions. Student leaders find themselves caught between those who call for radical, big picture idealism and others who want incremental action on day to day matters. They tend towards feeling trapped in debates that weigh up whether to be aggressive or ameliorative, and lie awake at night not knowing whether polite lobbying means they have become too close to the hand that funds, or too distant from those they are trying to influence. In the room, or outside of the room? Partner, or consumer? Input, or power?

Even its formation was a product of both radical student enthusiasm and of funding and approval from the great and the good – caught uncomfortably between the wide-eyed optimism of its participants, and the patronising permissionism of its sponsors, who were happy to see it challenge others’ conservatism, but not so pleased when that critique was impertinently directed at those that had helped it in the early years.

As T.E.Lawrence described that first decade:

We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.

Wincey willis

I was reading some research into perceptions of the value and contribution of student members of governing bodies in further education colleges the other day, and one contribution in particular caught my eye:

I’m not a major fan of student reps, if I were very, very honest, the whole concept of them, I’m not sure whether they add a lot of value. I’m not sure quite how much they get out of it either, if I was very honest. I think there’s a tendency for the student members especially to be strictly lip service, and I think that there should be far better ways of getting the learner voice to the board than through the student rep.”

Imagine it – being a college principal and having such little faith and confidence in your own college’s ability to support students and educate them effectively that you say that, out loud, to a researcher about the role of the student governor. Imagine thinking that the student who won the election has been failed so badly by your college that they will never even be capable of helping to govern it, let alone be educated and developed enough to change the world.

I’ve met thousands of student leaders over the years. I can count on one hand the number that weren’t capable of being effective in a meeting. I’ve met thousands more who were never supported and enabled to be so by the “great and the good” – many of whom deep down could never really believe that someone like a student could ever be allowed to be as great or as good as them – and certainly felt threatened rather than thrilled when they were challenged and made to feel uncomfortable about their actions, beliefs, performance or plans.

In a centenary year, there are doubtless plenty of retrospectives to come that will describe NUS’ work in the anti-apartheid movement, or its work to advance equality, its positioning on the role of students in university governance or its organisation of multiple student demonstrations. Less romantic, but just as important, is the role it has played in research and policy, the training and support it has offered to student leaders, and the platform it has offered on which students have been able to practice their politics.

Many memories will be surfaced, many photos posted, and many stopped clocks will be shown at the precise time that they were right. But while the demos and the pamphlets and the conferences are all important, for me it’s the upending of power thing that is the enduring value of student representation generally, and NUS specifically.

Sometimes it’s polite, and sometimes it’s unbearably rude. Sometimes it publishes a well researched contribution to an ongoing review, sometimes its officers post a sarcastic tweet. Sometimes it wants to change the world, sometimes it wants to change the timetable. Sometimes it says what we want to hear when we want to hear it, and often it’s the opposite. And sometimes, having supported these young leaders to develop, they throw it all back in your face.

Either way – whichever end of the tensions we’re talking – the future will be theirs soon. And for the time being, having our pomposity pricked, our wisdom questioned, our assumptions interrogated and being caused to consider whether we’ve become the bad guys is surely good for the soul, great for the sector, and essential for the students that NUS continues to represent 100 years on from that meeting on Malet St.

One response to “Happy 100th birthday to the National Union of Students

  1. As a ‘life member’, bought and paid for in the 70’s, the NUS was always more than just an extension of the school-boy debating society playing around the edges of politics. Unfortunately my employing University managed to disassociate the campus SU from the NUS back in the 90’s, so now it’s effectively ‘owned’ as a profit centre by said University, and no longer a useful force in local or national campaigning. What really grates is they won’t accept my life membership, so I have lost all of the access to facilities that was once part and parcel of being an NUS life member working at a University.

    So a warning to current students, don’t ever vote to disassociate from the NUS no matter what the University is offering, once you do the students that follow you will be the ones that suffer from any University mismanagement of your former SU, enabled by the s-too-dense who voted to disassociate!

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