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Sajid Javid’s NUS wars

Sajid Javid didn't like students' unions a great deal in the 1990s - Mark Leach takes a quick look at an interesting history of the new Secretary of State's involvement in student politics.
This article is more than 9 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

There’s an interesting line in the Conservative Home bio of new Business Secretary Sajid Javid. It relates to his time at the University of Exeter with his friends and their views about NUS and students’ unions – particularly Robert Halfon who is now an MP and appointed to the new Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio:

At Exeter, he got to know not only Montgomerie, but two other future Conservative MPs, Robert Halfon and David Burrowes: a quartet who have remained friends. At the Bournemouth conference, they turned up at seven in the morning in order to get seats in the front row for what turned out to be Thatcher’s last conference speech, and chanted slogans such as “Ten more years” in support of her.

Halfon has recalled how they took control of the university Conservative Association and turned it from a group of “old-style patrician Tories into a real political organisation, fighting the National Union of Students”.

Last night, Halfon rang me and conjured the sheer exhilaration of that time: “We just turned it into a kind of guerrilla fighting force. We took the NUS to the European Court of Human Rights.”

It turns out that this is indeed the case – Javid was unhappy with the then Conservative government’s stance towards NUS and students’ unions, and together with Robert Halfon tried to take some action about it at the European Court of Human Rights – action that was unsuccessful. Here’s an extract from official NUS historian Mike Day’s history of the student movement:

Kenneth Baker’s review of student unions in the 80’s, had, as far as NUS was concerned given the student movement a clean bill of health. Opponents of NUS thought differently and persisted in claims that student unions misused public funds. In 1989 Tim Janman tried to introduce an amendment to the Education Reform Bill, he was persuaded to drop the amendment in return for assurances that the issue would be looked at again. In November 1990, Alan Howarth, the Minister for Higher Education, announced that he would;

“…..shortly embark on consultations with representatives of the higher education institutions and various student bodies on the operation of the 1986 legislation on freedom of speech in higher and further education institutions; on the pattern of membership and financing of local student unions, and the NUS; and on the proper use of public funds by local student unions and the NUS….

A new review was on the cards, and consultations began the following February. Various groups were invited to submit their views. The Conservative Collegiate Forum was the only student political group that received the invitation. NUS welcomed the review and saw it as an opportunity to get across the role that student unions played. There was a realisation however that NUS needed to reform its structures to ensure that it could count on the wholehearted support of the membership. Critics of NUS had long held the belief that automatic membership of a student union was an infringement of individual human rights. Robert Halfon a student from Exeter University made a submission to European Court arguing that the compulsory membership of his student union contravened freedom of association under article 11 of the Convention on Human Rights. The European Court found against him.

“….The commission recalled that art 11 of the convention offers protection in respect of private associations and trade unions, but not in respect of public institutions. It considered that the student union cannot be regarded as a professional organisation upholding ethics or discipline within a profession, or as a trade union which represents its members in a labour conflict against an employer. It is part of the University. The university being a public institution the Commission found that compulsory membership of the University’s student union was not in breach of article 11 of the convention. Manifestly ill founded; inadmissible….. ”

So the challenge failed and ultimately nothing drastic happened in the law here – the ‘opt out’ rule – allowing students to decide not to join their students’ union – was introduced and the vast majority of students to this day do not exercise this right. The Conservatives in general softened their stance towards NUS and students’ unions, culminating in a very professional and mutually beneficial relationship between NUS and David Willetts when he was HE Minister – which healed a lot of the wounds of the past battles between the student movement and Tory politicians.

It’s unclear if Sajid Javid still holds these views about NUS and we know very little about his thoughts about students and universities more generally. But you can be sure that NUS will be working very hard to ensure they get off to a good start with the new Secretary of State and to dispel any old prejudices that might linger from the battles of the 1980s and 1990s.

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