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May 09, 2007

The N.U.S of today

When I was younger I had a fairly distorted image of students. And to a great degree this inspired me to aspire to going to university myself. Family and friends recounted their experiences nostalgically: inspired demonstrations, generous grants and a powerful student body. I naively conjured a utopia full of hugely intelligent idealists, fighting the good fight and generally having a good time. At the centre of such an image was the N.U.S, the lynchpin of the student movement. Though there are undoubtledly still a few people who mould nicely into the above stereotype, I’ve encountered vast amounts of apathy, and I’ll be frank plain ignorance of the N.U.S’s basic role since coming to Warwick.

I guess a large part of my image was created by the N.U.S’ high-profile status in the 1970’s. Following the election of the then radicalised president Jack Straw in 1968, the N.U.S followed a highly political path. In the 70’s the organization campaigned unceasingly for relaxed abortion laws and gay rights. As it entered the 80’s the organization fought a bitter fight with Thatcher’s administration, many of whom tried to restrict funds and limit the scope of N.U.S activity. Students proudly wore tee-shirts decrying At this point it must have been fantastic to be a student, filled with the passion of attacking the establishment. Even in its early days the organization had a powerful influence: in 1942 it played a key role in mobilizing students for the war effort.

But this image seems to have petered out somewhat nowadays. How many Warwick students could, for example, name the current N.U.S president (Gemma Tumelty)? Probably less than 5%; most of them Boar hacks or members of the Union Council. Even the recent demonstration in London against Top-Up fees failed to stir our apparently apathetic hearts. Held last October, only 7,000 students attended. Is such a state of affairs symptomatic of general changes or is the N.U.S becoming increasingly irrelevant to the students of today?

A short glimpse at the N.U.S website ( shows that essentially the organization hasn’t changed much. The home-page is emblazoned with all one might expect: the Admission Impossible campaign against tuition fees, other links promoting the Womens’ Liberation Campaign, the L.G.B.T.U Liberations Campaign, a Black Student’s Campaign and a Disabled’s Students Campaign. A report published last year, and authored by Tumelty, claims that they seek to ‘constantly improve the lives and experiences of students in the U.K,’ and ensure, ‘democracy, equality and collectivism.’ Clearly then, the organizations raison d’etre hasn’t changed.

Or student union has long been a stalwart supporter of the N.U.S. Indeed, the 2000-2002 President was Warwick alumnus Owain James, and the incumbent Women’s Officer is none other than last year’s Warwick Student Union President Kat Stark. And this doesn’t look set to change at any point in the near future. Union President and Gemma Tumelty work together collaboratively on many issues; ‘my inbox has about 5 emails from Gemma today alone,’ Duggan informs me.

But Warwick’s interests are already strongly represented by the Aldwych Group (the Students Union members of Russell Group Universities), chaired this year by Brian Duggan. As the incumbent Duggan meets frequently with the head honchos of the Russell Group to voice student concerns and opinions on developments Recently, Duggan tells me, he met with Wendy Piatt (Director General of the Russell Group) to discuss the impact of the introduction of Top up Fees, as well as lobbying them to extend access to Russell Group universities from lower income backgrounds.

I put it to Duggan that if the needs of Warwick students are already adequately represented by the Aldwych Group then surely N.U.S affiliation is unneccessary? Raising his voice slightly, Duggan answers with an authoritative ‘no.’ ’’If we left we’d lose, office training, welfare services and the ability to helps direct a national movement. What’s more, we’d also be weakening the movement itself.’ Further to this, a report in 2004 (authored by then President Simon Lucas) found that disaffiliation would be financially inadvisable and politically disingenuous.

But the N.U.S doesn’t receive such sterling support from everywhere. Numerous universities, including Southampton, Aston and Glasgow have disaffiliated in the past. Glasgow Student’s Union President Johnny Hardman informs me of the rationale behind such a decision. For Hardman, N.U.S affiliation increases the price of food and beverage prices for students as well as stemming local based political activism which, ‘forced Glasgow banks to change their charges entirely.’

Would such benefits apply to Warwick? Probably not. Lucas’ 2004 report sought to address such issues. Indeed, a hypothetical quote on an individual deal with Matthew Clark Wholesales to provide the Union’s beverages. The result of the inquiry found that under such a deal Warwick would be 117k worse off than at present. The report also found that the University would probably be hostile to disaffiliation and might take away the affiliation fee money from the universities budget- rendering it financially inadvisable.

A frequent gripe of some students is that the N.U.S is unrepresentative of its members. John Collins (President of the recently re-affiliated Imperial College Students’ Union), however, offered me a fresh perspective on this issue. For Collins, ‘the NUS as a body that serves student unions and their officers rather than a body that directly serves the U K’s 5 million students.’ Recently, for example, Collins convened with other Union Presidents and met the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell. Additionally, ‘his year our senior officers have benefited from NUS training, networking events, legal advice, elections support and a channel of communication to the government.’
Perhaps, therefore, the N.U.S has evolved into more of a support-based organization rather than the powerful campaigning force that it once was. Collins partially concurs with such a view, and is enthusiastic for the future of the N.U.S. He asserts that, ‘t is an interesting time for the NUS as affiliation fees have been cut and the politics seem to be moving away from the radical left and towards the moderate centre ground.’
But such enthusiasm is matched by equal cynicism from some parties. NO2N.U.S is probably the most prominent. The group’s credo is boldly stated on its homepage: ‘We think the NUS has failed to get to grips with the problems of student finance, housing, and standards of tuition.’ Amongst their other gripes is the allegation that the N.U.S is a body staffed by aspirant career politicians.

Are these views borne out by reality? Well, at surface value perhaps. A string of Labour politicians (most notably Jack Straw and Charles Clarke – two prominent current Cabinet members) have led the movement. Indeed, 1994-6 President Jim Murphy went straight from his N.U.S office to one in the Palace of Westminster. But this is not exactly a surprising find. Surely those that lead an organization such as the N.U.S with its decision making, necessity for debate, and propensity for passing directives are bound to incline towards politics in much the same way that those who enjoy reading and writing (presumably most people on English Literature courses) are likely to pursue careers in journalism or publishing. And, pragmatics aside, does such a state of affairs really matter? Surely those wishing to pursue a career in politics would want to demonstrate a strong level of competency and management so as not to disadvantage themselves for the future.

But are these cynical views shared by regular students? Are we really that apathetic? I decided to quiz a few students as to their views on the organization. Second Year chemistry student Richard Storr is enthusiastic: ‘I think it’s a good thing that an organization can get together and give students some power. ‘I like the 10% discount from Topshop chips in second year Maths student Verity Fisher enthusiastically. Whether the N.U.S is still a strong campaigning resource or not remains to be seen- but for these students the piecemeal contributions which the organization can implement to make life easier for students certainly seem to make its existence worthwhile.

Regardless of the polemics, the N.U.S seems set to stay; and so does Warwick’s affiliation. It offers a campaigning and lobbying clout unmatched in the student movement- and the gripes (not insignificant by any estimation)- are surely worth the collective power which the organization brings. We might not witness the inspiring scenes of the 80s (anti-apartheid demonstrations for example), but the organizations gains in recent years (the abolition of Council Tax to list but one) mean that I, at least, will always be a fan.

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