On Tuesday 16 February, Bath students gathered on Microsoft Teams to tune into the much-anticipated NUS Referendum debate hosted by Bath University Debating Society. This debate comes in the run-up to The SU's referendum on whether they should be affiliated with NUS for the coming years. A huge thank you to all of the speakers that shared their points so eloquently, and to the Debating Society for organising such a wonderful and thought-provoking event.
The evening consisted of four speakers, two for each side. Each speaker had several minutes to argue their case for or against The SU's affiliation followed by questions from the public.
Remain Team: Speaker 1
Ethan kicked off the debate with some great insight into the positive contributions that NUS can have. He spoke about the role of NUS in lobbying the government and lobbying support they give to students and SUs. Further down in his speech, Ethan also states that NUS also helps us lobby our own university. For example, they provide The SU with the tools to lobby the University for issues such as rent rebates and No-Detriment policies. Although it doesn't affect us all, they also played a crucial part in the A-Level u-turn in summer of 2020. The NUS was also incredibly involved in the mass testing of students which allowed us to go home over the festive period to spend time with our loved ones.
Value For Money
Ethan pointed out that this debate should be stripped down to perceived value for money. Currently, membership to NUS costs £30,000 which makes up 0.65% of The SU's total expenditure of around £4.5 million per year (in 2020). The SU also has not confirmed where they anticipate the money being spent as Ethan pointed out, and therefore should we be casting a vote based on where we think the money will be spent?
So is our money worth the £30,000? For Ethan, yes. During the pandemic, NUS has negotiated for the early release from student tenancies across the country which has put £500 million back in the pockets of students. By lobbying the government, they've also secured £174 million worth of hardship funds and the most recent of these was the £50 million grant announced a few weeks ago. The University is currently working with The SU on how we can distribute Bath’s chunk of that money
Closing his speech, Ethan states that the above are just a few examples of where NUS has helped students and believes that the £30,000 per year is a small sum compared to the £4.5 million expenditure The SU had in 2020 (£30,000 makes up 0.65% of this figure).
Looking forward, NUS is running a 'Students Deserve Better' campaign that protects our legal rights, ensures our education is not disadvantaged because of the pandemic, fight for us to be reimbursed for rent and treated fairly in general on a national scale. They are also working on a decolonising education campaign that Bath, in particular, can benefit from as they generally come out poorly when it comes to diversity metrics.
In 2020, NUS went through its biggest reform in 50 years to become a more transparent and student-focused organisation. Now more than ever, Ethan believes we need the support of NUS. Consistently throughout the pandemic students have been a scapegoat and poorly informed of the expectations of the government with regards to their University life. Alone, our SU doesn't have the influence or resources to effectively lobby on these issues. We therefore need NUS to help us to campaign collectively as a united student body. Ethan closes by saying that "Now more than ever, students should be sticking together and standing up for ourselves against the mistreatment that we have suffered during the pandemic."
Leave Team: Speaker 1
Jacob was up next, proposing that The SU should not be affiliated with NUS. Firstly, Jacob talks to us about NUS's role as a campaigning organisation, however, he quickly points out that the SU could achieve national campaigns without the support of NUS such as campaigns such as For Our Futures Sake, and The Forgotten Students campaign, born out of Sheffield SU.
Jacob believes that when NUS do try to provide support, such as for No Detriment, the support they provide is inadequate such as a map of what other universities are doing. In this example. there was no national push that we would expect for the money we pay, and the map was not publicised. However, we did manage to successfully lobby for a No Detriment policy suggesting a local approach is better. Would the University, public and local and national government not be more receptive to campaigns that come directly from us rather than an overarching body trying to represent the views of 600 SUs?
Jacob then turns to the NUS's website many of the campaigns have actually been localised, such as the rent rebates that came from pressure from our SU. The NUS has also not managed to get far on the early release of tenancies for those students living outside of halls. Decolonising Bath's curriculum has also come from our SU and University being pushed to do this. Disaffiliating would allow The SU to focus on issues that matter to our students and allows us to be represented nationally by our more respectable SU. This will allow us, as students, to express how we feel directly as opposed to NUS's system of "someone representing someone representing us expressing how we feel as 1/600th of a cohort".
Strength of our SU
Jacob points to some examples of disaffiliated SUs that achieve highly: Loughborough SU is 4th according to 'What Uni?' and Dundee are 7th. We can still be a leading SU, if not better, without being affiliated with NUS. We can focus on priorities from the ground up so our voices can be used more effectively. So if we can campaign effectively alone, why are we paying £30,000? Most of what we really benefit from will remain such as access to Totum, cheap alcohol, crisis support and resources. For £30,000 we get to take part in their democracy and vote on motions that may or may not be relevant to us. And then what? NUS lobby a government that doesn't listen and a public that has lost respect due to controversies around NUS's undemocratic proceedings and bankruptcy.
Instead, we need to bring the representation down a level, strengthen our networks and lobby from the ground to show what students are really feeling here in Bath. Jacob states that we're paying £30,000 for very little that could be better spent elsewhere. The SU recently announced a deficit of £200,000 so Jacob questions whether this money could be used to alleviate the hardship caused by this within the organisation.
Jacob finishes by talking about the structural issues of NUS. He points out that people probably do not know who the NUS full-time officers are, as these are voted on at conferences that only six of our students attend. This is a long chain between us and the people that supposedly represent us. There have been several expensive failed campaigns such as a £40,000 campaign in 2015 to shame politicians which ultimately reduced NUS's lobbying power. Why not put us at the forefront of campaigns, giving us more of a choice on how our money is used? Jacob also highlights the financial mismanagement of NUS in the form of a crisis realised in 2004 but left to 'fester' until 2018 where it accumulated a £3 million deficit. This could lead to our fees being increased to the £60,000 they were before the reforms.
Jacob finishes his speech by summarising the above points and stating that we should be campaigning from the ground up, with real students representing our views through an organisation with more credibility and respect within the University and authorities we are lobbying. By disaffiliating, we can make sure that issues that affect our students are heard as opposed to issues that NUS has voted for, as well as giving us more money to go back into the student experience. We've been with the NUS for a few years now and for Jacob, we are not getting our money's worth so why not try it on our own?
Remain Team: Speaker 2
Joe then picks the remain side back up by rebutting some of the points that Jacob has made. He starts by acknowledging that the points already mentioned are important to be thinking about, however there are a couple of through-points that are missing.
NUS AND Local Campaigning
Firstly, Joe re-emphasises Ethan's point that the £30,000 isn't that much of the SU's overall expenditure and not spending the money doesn't really make sense as it is only 0.65% of The SU's total expenditure. What this ultimately means is that all of the points Jacob raised about grassroots campaigning are not mutually exclusive with staying in NUS. As an SU, we can still be taking this approach whilst staying affiliated with NUS and receive the national campaigning benefits. The money we are paying for NUS does not stop us from also taking part in grassroots campaigns.
Benefits of Delegate Democracy
Secondly, Joe talks about the delegate democracy that Jacob pointed out. As previously mentioned, students at Bath elect delegates that act on their behalf. This means that we, as busy students, do not have to vote on all of these national issues, Instead, we have students that act on our behalf and if we do want to get involved we can contact our delegates and put policies for them to take to the conference. If we do not know who our delegates are missing the point; if we are not participating in the way that we could be that's on us rather than being a problem with NUS affiliation.
National Lobbying and Behind-The-Scenes
NUS has done a lot of behind-the-scenes lobbying, emailing influential people and speaking with one coherent voice. That's really the name of the game on a national level. The real result of a local approach would be confused as Students' Unions will not completely agree on where the emphasis should lie, especially around tactics and strategy. Using a national body such as NUS makes the campaigning more coherent and means that we can speak with a unified voice. The existence of NUS as the unambiguous voice of students means that the government cannot discredit what students have to say. This means that when we do agree on motions, these get put forward and they get heard.
Joe also points out that there is no good reason to suggest that the fees will rise again from £30,000. If the fees were to rise again, we could have a similar conversation around whether the money is worth it.
NUS Will Remain Regardless
Joe finishes by stating that NUS will continue to exist regardless of whether The SU Bath is affiliated. Disaffiliation does not revitalise The SU Bath, it will merely take our voice away. Wouldn't it be better to be on the inside and able to make change than on the outside not being heard?
Leave Team: Speaker 2
A More Local Philosophy
Aidan concludes the speeches by rounding up the arguments of the Leave side. Firstly Aiden wants to question Joe's point that NUS will keep going regardless. He argues that change will not happen unless other SUs move. The national campaigns that represent students will also take place regardless of whether we are spending £30,000, meaning we will still benefit from these whilst making the money-saving and decide that our representational philosophy is more local.
Aiden also feels that we are not to blame for not knowing who our representatives are. He believes that if you create such a layered system with tiers of representation then proposals can be shot down if those views are not echoed by the entire nation. Aiden suggests a smaller, regional campaign approach where issues affecting our local area will not be dismissed on a larger scale. The nature of this convoluted system (Aiden also added that the people he spoke to when doing research agreed with this statement) means that it's a "bureaucratic nightmare to work with". If we are going to encourage engagement, we must remove the red tape.
The Cost of NUS
Moving on, Ethan and Joe have stated that £30,000 is not a lot of money for this. However, Aiden points out that The SU is considering making cuts based on a £200,000 deficit then the absolute sums have a lot of sway in the final result. Some societies have a £300 annual budget then that money could make a huge difference in our own SU compared with what it's currently used for. The dismissal of the fact that it's just a small percentage of overall expenditure is a flawed argument. Aiden puts this into perspective by saying that it's the sum of a student's tuition fees for their entire degree.
NUS Charity Vs NUS UK
We are told that if we leave then The SU will be disconnected, however, if we read the actual specification of what we get from NUS UK and NUS Charity, a lot of the crucial and important parts is under NUS Charity that we will continue to get. NUS UK costs 4 times as much and provides a lot less, in Ethan’s opinion. Therefore, it's perfectly reasonable for us to be questioning how the organisation representing us spends their money and whether this can be better spent where students can see it. Aiden also proposed stepping back for a year and seeing how the local approach to campaigning works. He finishes by suggesting that we "get out there and vote that this year no, we don't want to join this large, bureaucratic mess."
The Debate then went onto questions submitted by the audience. The answers are paraphrased for length.
1. What other SUs have left and what have they accomplished?
Jacob: There have been national campaigns such as For Our Futures Sake and The Forgotten Student that was previously mentioned. More specifically, Surrey SU is disaffiliated and ran a campaign on the price of rent compared to their student loan. Their local MP then voiced this issue on a national scale.
2. I and many of my colleagues don't believe in a lot of the NUS campaigns. Why should we be part of something dominated by mostly far-left political views?
Joe: Everyone's entitled not to support all of the organisations. It's only natural that organisations won't be speaking on behalf of all of their members. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the campaigns, NUS will still exist without our affiliation. It is only as an affiliated SU that we have the right to get involved and make a difference to the NUS's stance.
3. Combines two questions about SU finances, one stating we are clearly in a deficit and the other proposing we leave to save money and then potentially re-affiliate in the future.
Ethan: £30,000 is a small sum in the grand scheme of things and the savings we will make will be insignificant. The funds generated by putting pressure on the government on things such as hardship funds makes the £30,000 a benefit and it's only as a collective organisation that we can achieve these.
Aiden: Do you really think the government is doing a lot for students? There have been mocking remarks about how students have been forgotten and misinformed. Clearly, NUS isn't doing a good job at informing students, or the government is ignoring them anyway. The other side spoke about not being able to lobby the government from a local level however this is the function of our MPs. NUS has not successfully held the government to account throughout this pandemic. On the subject of finances, £30,000 is a lot of money that will cut the £200,000 deficit by 1/7 in a single year.
Jacob: It's wrong to say £30,000 is a small amount. It's roughly the salary of a staff member so if the SU is making a difficult decision about finances, this is the difference between keeping, or hiring, a staff member.
4. What experience do the speakers have with our SU and NUS?
Speaker answers: Joe and Aiden are members of the debating society. Jacob and Ethan are both members of The SU that are interested in the issue.
5. Is the remain side aware that NUS had nothing to do with the rent rebate? It was done with our SU in collaboration with local Universities.?
Joe: The SU Bath and NUS both had involvement. No campaign will ever be unambiguously down to NUS and there is no achievement of a local SU that does not have some credit from NUS due to the support they receive through affiliation. At the national level, the wider point is that having one voice shapes the discourse and unifies the demands we are making. If we didn't have NUS in its current form means there is less coordination on political campaigning. NUS provides a level of authority that a local SU doesn't.
6. Do you think the national presence of NUS allows them to claim credit for stuff that happens for students nationally?
Joe: I briefly spoke about this when discussing the interplay between NUS and local SUs. Really it's a case of when NUS achieve something, each local SU also receives their credit for it, and vice-versa.
7. How would disaffiliation affect things for our SU officers specifically?
Jacob: I think that's down to our SU officers to answer. They have been building networks over the years and they will still receive support from NUS Charity. There are also organisations such as WonkHE that can help get the message out, arguably better.
8. How did NUS support bath with No Detriment, Rent Rebate etc?
Ethan: NUS provides resources to The SU for their campaigning. With No-Detriment, NUS provided resources to help inform their campaigning, held meetings with NUS representatives to help inform our SU on the best way to go about something. It doesn't take credit away from our SU, but their involvement supplies us with resources to help with the campaigns.
Aiden: Surrey isn't part of NUS and has been given both No Detriment and Rent Rebate. It could be that NUS resources were helpful and I would expect more for £30,000. Surrey is an example that you can make these changes. Universities want to keep their reputation in good stead so will want to make the students happy and avoid bad press, therefore it's possible to push these things through without NUS.
9. How is the student body going to suddenly change and become interested in politics if we disaffiliated? Those that want to use their voice on a national level should absolutely be able to do this.
Jacob: Sadly with NUS not everyone can get involved. If our SU were to run campaigns from the ground up, more people can get involved with campaigning on the issues we are facing.
Joe: The motions can be submitted to NUS through our Delegates. I think there's a persuasive argument to say that there should be more chance to be involved however firstly we cannot take that chance if we are not affiliated and secondly, motions can come from anyone. I don't see how disaffiliation is the solution to the problems we're discussing NUS.
10. How can alternatively national platforms offer benefits without the same costs as NUS?
Aiden: Most of the benefits of NUS could be drawn together by a group chat. Coordination can be done easily on the internet as communication is so open and this is currently happening within Universities across the country.
Joe: When NUS specifically has 95% of SUs affiliated and the official mandate to be the voice of the students, going through other avenues gives scope for people questioning their authority. Some disaffiliated SUs that have big wins could be doing so off the back of NUS setting the national agenda. Again, grassroots campaigning is not mutually exclusive to our affiliation with NUS and can still go ahead regardless.
11. What has NUS done for Bath before Covid?
Ethan: NUS took the home office to court and proved the government wrong with their attempt to deport 48,000 students. This shows the NUS genuinely do care about International Students who may feel forgotten about. NUS is also the reason students don't pay council tax and were involved in campaigns around postgraduate loans.
12. Wouldn't disaffiliation mean we would become increasingly isolated as an SU?
Jacob: We already have networks informally formed and there's no reason to pay £30,000 a year for them. There are organisations such as WonkHE who represent the student voice as well for much less, or even free.
13. Have there been specific campaigns with a national impact? Speaker also invites closing remarks.?
Joe: The suite of benefits that students have had are the best examples of the work NUS can do. The coherent early national push for no detriment policies in time for exams was a clear example of how a national body can start a campaign and make the demand heard quickly enough to be acted on in time. This would not have been realistic for locals SUs to achieve. Similarly, the government has been unable to ignore NUS on campaigns the rent rebate and hardship funds which have been extremely beneficial for students.
Aiden: Overall this evening has been weighing up the tiered system of delegates and whether that's the best way to lobby the government for a fee of £30,000 versus the more informal and cheaper mechanisms. As for its success, I would point back to Surrey as a positive example. Being a student is only one part of our political identity and we all have the power to email our MPs. Overall I am convinced that £30,000 for six delegates is a ridiculous amount of money that could be better placed elsewhere particularly as The SU is hurting financially at the moment.