Benefits to members
Alongside the representational, campaigning and advocacy work undertaken by the National Union of Students, the National Union offers benefits to Students Unions and its members alike. Students’ Unions benefit from activities, training and events alongside the opportunities to purchase goods collectively through NUS Services, allowing your Students’ Union to provide competitive prices in the Plug and Tub.
Students who are members of affiliated Students’ Unions are eligible to buy an NUS extra card
Your library card also displays the NUS logo, allowing you to prove you are a member of the NUS.
NUS Reform Proposals
Anyone who has been following student news recently, will know by now that the NUS is in crisis at the moment. Financial troubles, complicated governance, and a whole host of other troubles have put the organisation on an unsustainable path.
The NUS leadership team has put in place a series of cost-cutting measures, including some controversial temporary changes, that should see NUS through the next few months. However, major reforms are needed if NUS is to have a long-term future.
Right now the NUS is consulting on what some of these changes might be. We’ve been talking to students about these proposals to get their input, and SU staff have been to a number of conferences and workshops to find out more. We wanted to share with you what we have fed into the consultation, and we will keep you posted as we head into two important votes, at National Conference and Company meeting, once the proposals are finalised.
We think the NUS can be a really good thing for making sure that the voices of students are heard at a national level, and for supporting students’ unions everywhere in their work. But clearly it needs to become efficient, effective and relevant in what it is doing. See below for our responses to the questions we have been asked so far.
There will be some key votes that we will need to take a view on in the coming months. If you have any thoughts on the future of NUS, we’d love to hear from you. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback.
Here is what we have said to NUS so far:
Question 1.1: Do you have any comments on the six recommendations? *
Requirement 1 – Defined purpose and focused activities
We agree entirely with the view that NUS should re-define its purpose. However, the proposals contain a fundamental misunderstanding of the ‘golden circle’. The absence of a clear ‘why’ (a motivating belief) has led to inconsistencies in the proposals. The membership models appear to suggest that the NUS will support only the strong students’ unions who can afford to pay. It seems to do nothing for all students’ unions. That seems wrong, given how you have defined NUS’ purpose. To insist that there is a singular student voice is out of step with reality and will inevitably lead NUS down familiar paths. A clearer ‘why’ could unite all activities, and we encourage NUS to seek urgent guidance in articulating this core belief to help with the reform process.
The recommendations assume that NUS holds much of the expertise and must be central to the delivery of this core purpose. This again is wrong. Much, if not all, of the expertise on SUs resides within SUs, and the proposals should better reflect the opportunities that exist in facilitating students and SUs in delivering this core purpose on the local, regional, national and international stage.
Where the NUS can add real value is bringing external perspectives and insights that help to deliver core purpose through SUs. It should be an organisation that looks out, particularly working in partnership with others, whereas much of the focus within the proposals is inward looking.
Requirement 2 – Effective corporate oversight
If the NUS wishes to be effective, it should follow the best-practice of other charitable and commercial organisations and have one board made up of 12-13 people, or at least as small as the eventually-decided FTO number can make it, supported by advisory panels/committees where appropriate. This could include a commercial panel and other representative functions – with FTO roles elected to different levels. SUs throughout the country manage delivery of core purpose and democratic process in this way, as do countless charitable organisations. There is no reason why NUS should be any different. NUS would also benefit from greater external/independent input via panels, but there is no mention of that here. Recommendations 2.2 & 2.3 seem like complex work-arounds close to what is in place now, with democracy acting as a substitute for performance (e.g. a strong commercial performance will retain subscribers, whereas the current attempts at democratic engagement suffer from low participation). Again, a clearer articulation of purpose would aid decision-making with regards to effective corporate oversight.
Requirement 3 – Coherent campaigns that win!
This requirement does not recognise the work that can be done by students and SUs based locally but delivering nationally in the same way For our Future’s Sake has worked in mobilising students for a People’s Vote. It also does not recognise what can be achieved by working in partnership and through other organisations, to deliver the same goals.
A single organisational manifesto for NUS does make sense, and indeed focuses the work, but this should be decided democratically so that it reflects the issues that students and SUs face across the country. This will maximise impact and participation from students and SUs throughout the UK. In the same way, two-year officer posts also makes sense, though this begs the question whether the manifesto would be for two years or one, and raises the question of just how flexible we can be to adapt to policy changes that require campaign action within that time.
A smaller FTO team would focus the work, but it’s important that it is recognised a lot of that work can only be done by individuals who are experts in those areas from lived experience, i.e. liberation. We should not end up in a position where a white student is campaigning on black students’ behalves just for the sake of a smaller team and more focussed work.
Again, a clearer articulation of purpose, and in particular revealing organisational motivation, makes the delivery of this requirement clearer. For example, if your motivating belief (your why) is about the power and contribution of students’ voices in making the world a better place, then delivery could be about working through other activist organisations as partners, and lobbying them to work with students so their voices are heard there too. It doesn’t all have to be about NUS as deliverer, and working towards your purpose could be stronger for it.
Where NUS may have the strongest locus on delivery is in FE and HE, and that would suggest a clearer focus in this area could be possible. However, there needs to be a careful balance to ensure that NUS does not lose sight of educational issues affecting key groups of students by ‘outsourcing’ their issues to other organisations. A clear articulation of purpose, and a strong resource commitment to working in partnership, would be required.
Requirement 4 – Representative of members
4.1 Voting digitally and remotely would seem really sensible for the 21st century.
4.2 SUs determining delegates would also make sense – and the most democratic/representative way of doing that.
4.3 Regional activity to reduce participation costs is welcomed, and the most effective way for NUS to do this is to support SUs to organise, network and campaign in their regions effectively, rather than ‘do it for them’.
4.4 This is an extremely welcome recommendation as the policy writing/submitting/debating process is currently just a political game to profile candidates for re-election which hugely demotivates first-time delegates who spend time on their policies, only to have speeches snubbed by election hopefuls. It would make for a less toxic atmosphere.
4.5 Who can argue with the title of recommendation 4.5? It is time to drag NUS out of the 20th century and into the 21st… and the reality is that officers and SUs have a busy timeline of their own. NUS needs to focus on its quality and timeliness, without losing the wider benefits of the current environment. Liberation delegates, for example, are rightly concerned about single conference with liberation caucuses. It would take away from the benefits that liberation delegates currently experience; proper networking and idea sharing. They emphasise that their conferences are so much more than policy and politics.
Requirement 5 – Focus on core SU services
We think this section of requirements is particularly confused, and more needs to be done to properly define the functions and structures that NUS would seek to deliver. We would recommend that further work is needed to define the shape and structure of the organisation in more detail.
5.1 The notion of two back-to-back ‘organisations’ is a little confusing. In practice, it’s all seen as the same organisation (see National Trust and National Trust Enterprises as an example – they are all NT cafes in the end, and the commercial panel there reports to the board). The important distinctions within an NUS context are about the level of oversight and governance – and it is important that whilst there may be some influence from the board, the support/commercial ‘organisation’ must be about delivery of what SUs want and need. The imperative for this latter organisation is being effective because other organisations can very easily step in to be supporting SUs, whereas only NUS can deliver strong student voice.
5.2 This makes sense, but there’s nothing commercial here – so is very limited in usefulness. We would expect to not pay very much for this at all, and would have concerns about its long-term viability. SUs hold much of the expertise in these areas, and NUS’ role in facilitating these connections must be key.
5.3 This makes sense, but only in concert with 5.2. There should be a degree of flexibility in this approach, with its commercial success (or otherwise) being its mark of success. If it’s not good, SUs will walk away and seek/form other delivery vehicles.
Requirement 6 – Financially sustainable, value for money
The sector is about to go through a tough period financially. Our current level of grant to NUS is not sustainable for us. We have a large grant in compensation for smaller commercial income. As our grant comes under pressure, we have limited opportunities to save money elsewhere – and whilst we recognise fully the benefit of the collective national voice in delivering our core purpose on the national stage, in terms of pure value for money, we do not see sufficient value in NUS services in comparison to services we might buy in from elsewhere. We therefore welcome the ambition to reduce the overall fee.
Our recommendation would be to structure NUS income as:
Collective voice / voice services – membership fee based on turnover (as per most membership organisations, and FREE to smaller HE/FE)
Commercial / products (including conferences) – service fee as a % of sales / cost of product (with % to NUS)
We believe strongly that the NUS should be accessible to all who wish to affiliate, free to those who cannot afford it, and that commercial participation should be open to any SU which sees value in the proposition. This places a strong commercial imperative on NUS to succeed.
Question 2.1: What should the elected full-time officer roles be?
We prefer option 3 – [12 officers] but categorically VP UD does NOT need to be a position here. All officers should be incorporating UD remit in their work as a fundamental part of NUS’s role. The Trans Officer is more important, you simply cannot remove 1 liberation position as suggested by the turnaround board.
We see the 12 officer option as the only viable option in reality. 4 officers would completely lose liberation focuses, 7 officers does not give enough attention to liberation, and 14 officers is financially unsustainable, as well as officers not receiving enough support. We discussed an 11 FTO team, removing VP UD from option 2.
Once you get to 11 officers, it becomes very difficult to reduce down further without seriously harming core important representation. Though it has to be said, international students are extremely worried about the current environment and the cutting of the international students’ officer. We spoke to our delegate who said that if that’s the case, there should be a full time member of staff who specialises in international students to meet regularly with FTOs to ensure their work applies to international students and they feel sufficiently represented.
We personally feel all 11 officers in our model should sit on the board, with up to 5 externals.
Question 2.2: What should the membership model be?
For our officers and delegates, the power in ‘affiliating’ is integral to the motivation to get involved with what NUS is doing, but it is crucial and welcome that the overall fee is reduced to 2.5%. However, this also gives more power to ‘disaffiliating’ making it imperative that NUS gets the rest of its reforms right.
Whilst the multiple membership model is the most flexible, and potentially produces the strongest financial footing because it opens the opportunity for SUs that are not politically affiliated to benefit from subscription, there is danger that you lose cohesion in the movement, and networks suffer as a result because there is less crossover with people’s engagement within NUS.
Question 2.2C: Do you have a view on NUS’ core income that is very different to what is proposed in this White Paper?
We welcome the scale of reduction proposed here. If key aspects of the reforms are not implemented, then it is likely that a more radical change will need to be implemented out of necessity.
2.3B: Do you have any comments about the democratic decision-making model? *
We liked option 1, but have heard concerns from our liberation delegates about the cutting of their conferences to merely be replaced by caucuses. Liberation delegates emphasise that their conferences are so much more than policy or politics, it’s a chance for student activists to network and share ideas. They also point out that, though funded by SUs, all the liberation conferences budgets put together didn’t cost half of what national conference costs NUS to run. They also point out that even if national conference had a representative amount of trans people present, there’d only still be about 10 people there, highlighting how minorities should really have their own conferences, especially as so many people who go to lib conferences aren’t necessarily involved with, or supporters of, NUS as a whole.