Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Why say NO to disaffiliation?

This is an article written for the weekly paper of Sussex Students Union, the Badger, by Lee Vernon, Finance Officer at that Student Union and also a member of Socialist Students. I think it raises some interesting questions as to how to approach NUS if the governance review passes.

November 17, 2008 by Lee Vernon

I just wish to start by saying how much I hate NUS. Words can hardly do my bitterness justice, but saying I despise it with every ounce of my being is a pretty good description. I’m kinda the NUS expert around the Union and I challenge anyone to take that honour (god, please do).I attend just about any NUS event going only to sidelined, write numerous policy submissions that get ignored and speak at conferences only to be shouted down. Yep, I really hate NUS and yet, I say no to disaffiliation.
Yes the NUS is run by a bunch of bureaucrats and New Labour stooges who are hell bent on wrecking democracy and stand opposed to a lot of what Sussex stands for.
As a committed socialist and a member of Socialist Students, the NUS leadership is the evil doppelganger of all my beliefs. But this isn’t enough to warrant disaffiliation. Why? Because us leaving it would only disadvantage and isolate us whilst the NUS leadership would be overjoyed and the left wing weakened. Sussex remains one of the NUS’s biggest critics, and you can guarantee at every meeting, conference and event we’re there pushing for a strong democratic NUS that fights against marketisation and for free education.
Thanks to Sussex’s role in Save NUS Democracy, the first constitution got voted down, embarrassing the NUS leadership and forcing them to back down on and give us concessions.
We raise the political debate and show that a Union that engages it students and fights for them goes out and wins. We inspire other smaller Unions to campaign in the same way and are one of the few that hold the NUS to account at every corner.
Without us, I guarantee the NUS bureaucrats will sleep safer at night, knowing that it will be twice as easy to get its motions rubber stamped without so much as a peep. But we’ll be making a political statement I hear you say, I mean, really?
Sussex, with its reputation as the most left wing union in the country, leaving will hardly cause a ripple as one Union leaves and NUS continues as usual. And what happens to us? We become one Union against the world, with no national or regional representation.
Though we will save the £36,000 we give in affiliation fees. And then lose between £50,000-60,000 in savings in beer and shop goods we get through NUSSL (the NUS’s purchasing consortium). Not to mention all the training, connections, networking and resources we also get from NUS, along with the 10% student discount.
So to conclude disaffiliation gives us :
  • A 30k budget deficit
  • No representation nationally
  • No say in policy debates
  • No arena for networking
  • And of course, no discount card….

It is vital that Sussex stays in NUS, not just for the resources it gives us, but to continue to fight and hold it to account, networking and uniting with other activist unions and showing them that the way forward is genuine democracy, engagement and resistance.
The student movement needs an organisation to bring together all the Unions to fight nationally whilst supporting locally, and the NUS for all its faults is that organisation. Say No to disaffiliation, so we can continue to both fight and inspire on a national level .


Vicky said...

I don't think the 10% student discount is a valid reason to stay. You get this with a regular non NUS student card in 90% of cases and if advertised as a "student discount" rather than a NUS card discount you will certainly get it- the only place I can think of where you don't is Superdrug. As for NUSSL- being apart from this would, I imagine, free unions up to source their goods, if students were to demand it, more locally and ethically. Finally, there is no way that we can continue to "hold [NUS] to account"- the Governance Review cunningly removed all means for ordinary students to do just that.

I suspect I would support disaffiliation if it were proposed in my own union.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

For me there has to be something better to affiliate to or the possiblity of building that. At the moment I don't think thats possible - all we'll see is a few student unions disaffiliating into nothing. I liken it to USDAW which is similarly undemocratic but we have to reamin in it as the weakness of the left means that trying to split the union would be a waste of time.

I think the NUS card and NUSSL are factors we have to take into account. Ultimately, such things have to be secondary to the political impact we can have. In my experience of NUS Wales, for example, it is often the less well organised FE colleges that are often to the left of NUS yet at the moment I don't think i would have met these people unless i went to NUS Wales Conference.
But such people are the ones we need to win over to a campaigning bloc/union and the question is how we do this?

Sean Ambler said...

This is an important discussion and one I haven't made my mind up on yet - as is the case for the vast majority of left wing groups.

However I do wish to point something out which most of the left seems to miss - that there is a qualitative difference between the NUS and even the most right wing reactionary unions (such as the retail one in Australia the section of the CWI there set up a competing union to). That difference is in funding - the NUS is funding by the government, other unions are funded by their members. This is in part the reason that the NUS has never really been a fighting body for students in its lifetime, ever. While it is correct to fight the battle within it, we shouldn't rule out disaffiliation, especially when this is combined with a movement for a genuine fighting student union. An important first step in that would be setting up fighting student bodies locally - something that despite having a conference for this, Rob Owen immediately afterwards told me the SWP would not be doing in the immediate future.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

As far as i understand NUS isn't directly state funded - rather it receives a sizeable chunk of its funding from the affiliation fees of students unions to NUS (which is a federal body). Its the student unions that are somewhat state funded (i'm sure i posted something about how this changed from funding by students leas (sort of like a membership fee) to funding from the institution (the block grant) - it should be on the blog somewhere.

Of course we can't rule out disaffiliation but at each stage we need to look at the pro's and con's of such an action. If just Sussex or even one or two other SU's disaffiliated at this present time I really think it wouldn;t be worth it. But this of course depends on the situation.

"An important first step in that would be setting up fighting student bodies locally "

I completely agree - at the very least the setting up of a campaigns collective or left opposition or whatever within student unions would be a step in the right direction. However, this depends on being able to build support for such a thing.

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