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Will turkeys vote for Christmas? NUS heads in to a crunch conference week

NUS holds its national conference this week in Glasgow and so Wonkhe's Mark Leach previews the debates and elections we can expect.
This article is more than 5 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Shakira Martin, the outgoing President of the National Union of Students has proved to be a rambunctious yet formidable advocate for students.

With an act that hard to follow, most simply assumed that her talented deputy Amatey Doku would emerge as the successor. His decision not to contest the position at this year’s conference in Glasgow means a much wider field than usual has emerged. And unusually, just one of the contenders has already held NUS office.

Runners and riders

Nelly Kibirige is Martin’s chosen successor – the current President of London South Bank University Students’ Union, she has a similar non-traditional/working mother narrative, although her style is more thoughtful than forceful. Zamzam Ibrahim – former President of Salford SU is a current NUS Vice President and backed by many on the left of NUS. Justine Canady – for a “fighting, democratic NUS” – is backed by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, and Meike Imberg, the President of Greenwich Students’ Union is also in the mix. A “straight talking” EU student from Germany without formal factional ties, she may benefit from NUS’s alternative transferable vote system.

Other choices in a crowded field include Bilal Bin Saqib, a postgraduate from LSE that says that people call him “an influencer, a motivational speaker, an entrepreneur, a marketer, and a businessman”, and Momin Saqib – the first non-European international student to be elected as the President of King’s College London SU in 144 years, who will be hoping to improve on his result from last year when he won just 168 votes.

Remain and reform

Traditionally it is the election of its student leadership that dominates proceedings at the conference – but not this year. To give delegates time to scrutinise and meet candidates, elections for the president and vice presidents have tended to take place throughout the three-day event, but in an effort to force some focus onto reform, all of the elections this year will be complete by teatime on day one.

By the end of Freshers’ Week 2018, a decision to make drastic changes to the paid-for NUS card to arrest a decline in sales looked to have had the reverse effect – leaving a large hole in NUS’ budget and a cashflow crisis that has since seen the organisation shed half of its staff and put its London headquarters up for sale.

The subsequent need for far-reaching reform has generated a proposal for a dramatically slimmed down democratic structure that will be debated in Glasgow – and is likely to generate the apotheosis of conference debate – endless procedural wrangling punctuated by occasional moments of high drama.

Two-thirds of the turkeys present will be required to vote for Christmas for the proposals to pass, and insiders are sceptical about the reform package’s chances of coming out the other side intact. Where NUS goes next if the proposals don’t pass has been a matter of fevered speculation, but given the extraordinary financial pressures on the organisation, something will need to give, somewhere.

You were the future once

Many people who dabbled in student politics in their youth quietly bemoan the seeming lack of radicalism of today’s students – but the reality is that in recent decades the increase in student numbers towards a mass HE system has generated a much more diverse student profile,  undermining the simplistic tactic used in the past to align a collective student consciousness with (what was often white, middle) class struggle.

With multiple student identities and experiences to represent, NUS has struggled to develop systems that simultaneously combine authentic self-expression with coherence and efficiency. The reforms proposed inevitably tip toward the latter; the opposition is largely centred on the former.

The debate that students will stage about their union also speaks to wider questions that surround governance in higher education. Some see a need to centralise and tighten the power of its board as the only route to effectiveness, particularly when money is short. To others, proposals to reduce the number of elected positions and the size of the conference are an anathema to this institution’s democratic character.

I got issues

The conference will still have the job of deciding its position on a gloriously eclectic range of issues of concern to students. The first formal motion to be discussed will be that chosen as a priority by the NUS leadership – and it’s a fresh attempt to set the agenda around the review of post-18 education funding. “Education on the Edge” calls for a “bold and proactive vision” that includes free education, maintenance funding, student voice and equality for all –  an amendment debate about whether to back a cut in fees could be more controversial.

In higher education, the main proposal perhaps inevitably focus on marketisation – but there are plenty of more day to day concerns on the agenda. A proposed cap on international students fees, calls for more transparency over where fees go, as well as graduation costs, placement pay and lecture capture all feature. In the welfare area, mental health again dominates with both the sector and the government coming in for criticism – but there are also motions on housing, hate crime and an interesting call to standardise bursary support across the sector.

Lose the fringe

This year’s event is bedevilled with austerity – there is no fringe programme for delegates to explore, and it’s not even clear that the event will be streamed for the outside world on YouTube as in previous years. If that’s the case, that’s a pity – watching a student leader deliver a passionate, heartfelt speech to 800 people on the complexities of the TEF (in 45 seconds, on no sleep) is always inspiring.

We say it every year, but it deserves saying again – while the press will pick up on jazz hands and exhortations to use neutral gender pronouns, the reality is that there are very few organisations in the UK where the leading candidates for leadership positions are more often than not BaME, women, disabled and or LGBT+; and fewer still where that will feel entirely normal to participants at the conference. Long may it continue.

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