Or at least that's what it felt like…
This week, Ben Franklin (the current Union President) and I visited Brighton for the NUS National Conference 2016.
For those of you who don't know, the NUS stands for the National Union of Students, and (is supposed to) represent over 7 million students in Further and Higher Education, including also apprentices. Individual Students' Unions can affiliate to the NUS for a fee (which is proportional to the number of Students), in return for support, advice, and various discounts. Each affiliated Union sends a specified number of delegates to conference, where the specified number is dependent on the number of actual Students who are members of that Union. Confused yet??
The University of Southampton Students' Union (SUSU, or soon to be Us) has had a bit of a rocky history when it comes to the NUS. Following an AGM decision in 2002 we disaffiliated. Then in 2010 another referendum was held, in which 67% of Students who voted said NO to affiliating. The most recent referendum happened in 2012, when 73% again said NO to affiliation. If we chose to affiliate today, the fee for doing so would be along the lines of £60,000 each year.
So Ben and I went to Brighton as observers with no voting rights but with the intention of finding out what's going on nationally and also networking with other Unions and other Students.
I've decided to reflect on several points in this report: Safe Spaces, Policy, and finally Democratic Process. At the end I'll give a broad summary, and explain what I am going to do.
This is something that is coming up more and more in the educational sector. The upshot is that Safe Spaces places the importance of the right not to be offended higher than the right to freedom of speech. This means that in these designated Safe Spaces, you really do have to think about what you are going to say because if you do end up offending someone, then you'll get pulled up for it. I don't disagree with this in principle (though I'm not at all convinced that anything is more important than freedom of speech). What I do disagree with is the application of Safe Spaces.
The NUS seems to take the application to the very very very extreme. To the point where delegates at conference are not allowed to cheer speakers because some people might find it triggering, and basically everyone has to remain calm at all times (or at least that is my interpretation). The example that stood out for me was that during the elections speeches for President on Wednesday morning, people were standing up and applauding and cheering the candidates at the relevant times. Afterwards, one delegate gave a 'statement' in which she said that other delegates cheering had triggered her anxiety, and that by doing so they were telling her that she had no right to be there.
No. I'm sorry. That jump of logic is simply not OK! By cheering, they are unintentionally forgetting that there are other delegates with access needs who find it triggering, purely in the heat of the moment. But the point is that I don't blame her for that kind of jump. Instead I blame the NUS for allowing that kind of blame attitude to exist within the movement. That is just one example, but I can think of plenty more where the Safe Space principle was taken too far. As Ben said, by creating loads of rules to try to create an anxiety free environment, they are in fact making people more anxious that they might break a rule.
The problem at the core of all this appears to be that the term Safe Spaces is applied differently wherever you go or whoever you talk to. There's no clear definition of what a Safe Space is, so the people setting them up have to feel their way into creating rules.
One thing is for sure: unless we as a society decide on a definition and apply that consistently, then Safe Spaces will begin to do serious harm to the right to freedom of speech. This cannot be allowed to happen. Ever.
Here are some of the policies that caught my eye over the course of the conference.The full document of policies and amendments can be found here (warning – there's a lot of policies!).
Motion 201 – Divorce our courses from market forces
The interesting part of this came as amendment 201b. The upshot is that the Government are looking to encourage even further competition between institutions, and are planning to do this via something called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as set out in the Green Paper entitled Fulfilling our Potential which will rely on the results of the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Destination of Leavers in Higher Education survey (DLHE). Higher scores on the TEF may allow institutions to raise their tuition fees in the future.
The motion passed sets out a strategy for making the reforms planned by the Government unworkable by sabotaging/boycotting the NSS and DLHE unless the plans are withdrawn.
Having not read the Green Paper myself I can't really comment, but certainly if the intent is for higher fees for "better" institutions then that is something that I won't be supportive of.
On the surveys themselves, there are certain figures within the NUS who are fundamentally against the NSS on the basis of the fact that it encourages abuse against lecturers and that institutions will do anything to get good results (including bribery).
I can't say that I have a personal opinion on the whole situation, other than that higher fees = very bad news. I'll be interested to see how this plays out, and if our Union deems it necessary to act ourselves on this.
Motion 209 – Keeping Universities Accountable
This is incredibly similar to the policy that was passed by our Union Council in February, and sets the stance of the NUS as against any move to exempt HE institutions from FOI requests. Very good move from the NUS.
Motion 303 – Safe Social Elections
This is one that has been all over the news. Elections are becoming a lot more social media focussed. We all know this, and it was one of the strongest parts of my campaign. This policy that was passed suggests that online bullying of candidates is becoming an increasing problem and I can believe that. One of my friends was wrongly accused of racism during her campaign, in an anger fuelled rant on someone's personal and private Facebook profile. The motion also says that the use of YikYak allows bullying to happen anonymously too. These are all very serious issues, and they require tackling by thought out and well organised campaigns.
What cannot be taken seriously is the NUS response to these issues which is to make contact (or attempt to) with YikYak, Facebook and Twitter, and ask them to monitor for such posts during elections at all their affiliated Unions, and remove any that might constitute bullying. Apparently some Unions have even gone as far as to block YikYak from their wifi!
THIS WILL NOT WORK!!! Does the NUS really, seriously believe that YikYak, Facebook and Twitter will listen to them? And do they seriously think that these organisations are going to actually agree to any form of active censorship that is beyond their own guidelines? I think not.
This is an impractical policy that is a huge embarrassment to the NUS and everything it stands for. I can quite easily see someone having to stand up at next year's conference and admit that they weren't able to make this happen. On the basis of what I've seen I'd expect this to lead to a motion of censure being brought against them which would sadly pass. All because this year's delegates refused to acknowledge that this policy is flawed.
Amendment 404a – NUS should officially commemorate Holocaust memorial day
This was an amendment that was submitted to a policy that reaffirms the NUS' commitment to tackling anti-Semitism, and also extends the probe into institutional racism to look into institutional anti-Semitism. The amendment does exactly as per what is said in the title. Pretty straightforward you'd think, right?
WRONG! This is the NUS. When was anything ever straightforward? There was a speech against, which made a valid argument (along the lines of 'what about all the other genocides in history e.g.. Rwanda') however it wasn't really an argument as to why this amendment in particular should fall, thus the amendment passed, and subsequently the main policy too.
— Ben Sutton (@BenSutton1865) April 20, 2016
Let's be honest, would this really surprise you??
Motion 406 – Preventing PREVENT
Explaining this isn't straightforward, so I'd encourage you to have a watch of this video to find out more. Needless to say this policy was passed at conference.
The damage potential to the HE sector by PREVENT became more and more apparent as the conference went on with countless delegates raising their objections to it in their speeches.
This is something that I believe that we as a Union should be campaigning on, therefore it is my intention to bring a policy to the Union's AGM in a few short weeks so that (providing it passes) we can have a strong stance against it and plan a campaign to raise awareness and lobby MPs in Southampton and the surrounding areas.
This is honestly one policy that I believe that we can and should unite behind, and from the looks of things at conference, the vast majority of other Unions are behind it too.
Motion 510 – Personalised tool kits for lobbying MPs and local councillors
Broadly speaking, this policy wasn't controversial, apart from one point that was raised by one delegate as to why the policy should fall. She said that she was appalled to see NUS leaders publicly aligning themselves with political parties and expressed concern that resolves 2 (Tailor [toolkits] from party to party – and consider other factors such as regions of the UK and specialist support that might be required) could only make that worse. There followed an interesting debate over how political the NUS should actually be and whether leaders publicly supporting certain parties was a bad thing or not.
In spite of this, the policy passed, but it was a thought provoking discussion. My approach is to debate the politics of issues on a case by case basis, rather than actively looking for party lines all the time.
If you were following my tweets over the conference you will have noticed a few comments relating to votes of no confidence (VONC), and motions of censure.
These were the times when you really did sit up and listen. I believe all but one of the chairs was subject to at least one VONC for an array of issues, from 'not paying enough attention to certain parts of the floor' to 'edgy Wales references'. To my knowledge none of these passed, and if you looked at social media there were accusations that these were deliberate attempts to waste time.
The very last VONC in the chair came right at the end of the conference as a joke motion. Unfortunately owing to the guillotine, the time wasted meant that other policies weren't able to be discussed, and the proposer (the President of NUS Scotland) released a statement of apology later in the day:
— Vonnie Sandlan (@NUS_Vonnie) April 21, 2016
There were also at least 3 motions of censure over the course of the conference. One against the VP Societies and Citizenship (which clearly fell), one against the Part-time and Mature Students Officer (which also clearly fell), and one against the entire National Executive Committee. I covered this last one on Twitter, as follows…
— Alex Hovden (@WheelsOnFire92) April 20, 2016
— Alex Hovden (@WheelsOnFire92) April 20, 2016
To put it into context, this is pretty much like the AGM of SUSU telling Union Council that it thoroughly disapproves of its behaviour. There appears to be a lot of dissatisfaction about the NEC, with one person suggesting that the money spent should be used on more meaningful campaigns. As much as I am fairly anti-establishment myself, I don't ever see that happening. It would require a seriously huge cock up to have enough support.
Interestingly also, last July the NEC voted to censure the President Megan Dunn after she apparently ignored policy on BDS. So this kind of internal division is certainly nothing new.
The other point that I want to mention in this section is their voting system. At our Union, we have electronic voting which is done via zappers (technical term there) at Council, and online at the AGM and during elections. At the NUS, they have voting cards and ballot papers. It is almost as if the digital revolution hasn't quite been realised there. Voting cards in theory work fine when there isn't a controversial policy and its a clear majority one way or the other. The problem comes when the voting is close and they have to manually count the votes in the room. All 600+ of them. Everyone has to sit there in silence, and the doors are locked so nobody can enter or leave.
What they need is electronic voting of some description. zappers, online, whatever. They just need that, and they need it as soon as possible.
They also need to modernise their elections system. For the elections to Democratic Procedures Committee and to NEC they had a large number of candidates. The problem was that the ballot papers weren't printed with the candidates' names so they had to get everyone to write them down. So they read the names out, and spelt each one.
So they are currently reading and spelling the names of DPC elections candidates. Painfully tedious. Get electronic voting! #NUSConference
— Alex Hovden (@WheelsOnFire92) April 21, 2016
Am I at a fucking spelling bee right now? #nusconference
— Rosie Inman (@RosieInman) April 21, 2016
Yes Rosie, it certainly did seem like a spelling bee!
The good news is that after speaking to someone on the Democratic Procedures Committee, there should be electronic voting for next year's conference. It seems that the digital age might be realised after all.
I think that if I had been a voting delegate at the conference then my sanity would have been in tatters by the end! As it was my sanity remained in tact.. just about.
Safe Spaces in my opinion are taken way too seriously by the NUS.
Some very questionable policies are being passed and worrying discussions are being had.
The NUS is a divided organisation with its leadership facing motions of censure and votes of no confidence used as deliberate time wasting mechanisms.
An outdated and tedious voting system in use.
A new NUS President who I think will struggle to unite the movement after accusations of anti-Semitism.
Whilst I can sort of see the arguments for reaffiliating in terms of being a part of a bigger, wider movement, the organisation needs to take a long hard look in the mirror I think. Too often the NUS is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Becoming a more united and harmonious body would go some way towards helping that, as well as realising when policies are simply ridiculous. Oh and making the Safe Space policy less authoritarian and fairer on everyone.
This week has been eye opening and has provided an interesting insight into the NUS. It has helped me see that right now, whilst they are going through such a rocky period, for us to affiliate would be counter-productive on both sides and controversial amongst our own students.
However that doesn't mean that we shouldn't work with them on certain things. Being outside gives us the opportunity to pick and choose which of their campaigns we want to support. Students not Suspects (Preventing PREVENT) is a prime example of a campaign that I think that we should be engaging with.
The fact is that the NUS does have a ton of potential to be a real force for change. Everyone who was at the conference was incredibly passionate and some of the speeches that were delivered were exceptionally powerful. I found myself nodding in agreement quite regularly. For all my criticisms of the organisation, you simply cannot fault the individuals who truly believe in what they are fighting for.
When I initially drafted out my manifesto, I stated a belief that we need to be quite selfish as a Union in terms of working out what we would want to get out of affiliation, and base our decision on reaffiliation on a comparison between those criterion and what is currently on offer. I honestly have no idea what our Students would want to get out of it, so what I intend to do is run an NUS review next year in order to find out.
The decision on whether to hold a referendum is ultimately up to Students and subject to our democratic processes, and any Student can put together a motion that would resolve to a referendum. After this week though I think I can confidently say that I have no plans to propose such a motion, unless the NUS undergoes radical reform.
Thank you very much for reading this report! Anyone who has got to the end deserves a medal, especially if your sanity remains in one piece too!