NUS Extraordinary Conference 17th June 2004 - A Report

At UCL, there has been much debate recently about the National Union of Students, and whether UCL Union should remain affiliated with them. During the last academic year, there was a referendum on the issue in which many of the students involved with the Union were urging for disaffiliation, on the basis that it isn't worth the affiliation fee. In the results, over two thirds of votes were in favour of remaining affiliated. The story didn't end there though, as at the NUS National Conference some UCL delegates fell out with the NUS over a motion which no-platformed an Islamic extremist group and singled out Islamic groups for monitoring. That conference ended with the newly by-elected UCL Union General Secretary, one infamous Steven Fingleton, declaring that UCLU would disaffiliate. Back in London, a disaffiliation motion was put to a General Meeting, but an amendment was passed instead, which urged NUS to reform within six months or else UCLU would hold another referendum, with the Union Executive running a pro-disaffiliation campaign.

Along came the summer term, and the required number of universities had successfully called for an Extraordinary NUS Conference, in which the agenda would be reform. I decided to go along as part of the UCL Union delegation largely because I had nothing to do and I thought it would be interesting to see whether NUS would successfully pass reforms or not. There were no election for the delegation as it was the summer term and we had more spaces than candidates.

The conference took place at Leeds Student Union, and we travelled up the night before and stayed in a hotel. The 10am start the next day kept being postponed though, due to problems with printing stuff and some breach of a Student-Staff Protocol. We ended up starting after lunch, following an hour in which the tedium was averted by voting on joke issues like whether Jaffa Cakes were cakes or biscuits.

The slightly strange process of the conference meant that there was only one main motion, which was small and quite tame, but lots of controversial amendments, and it was these that the debates were about. Interestingly, the main motion (which passed) mandates full-time NUS officers to publish a regular online blog statement, with a specified frequency (once a fortnight), a specified length (250-750 words) and a specified content (all Unis they visit, all non-confidential work they do, and an expenses summary). This must be the first time in which blogging has been made an obligitary part of an elected representative's job. How this will be implemented and how strictly the mandate will be followed remains to be seen however, but it could be a good way of ensuring transparency and openness.

One of the odd things about the conference was that many of the debates were wrapped up in a statement that the NUS needed to save money to reduce its 500,000 deficit. However there were other agendas at play to try and make the NUS more democratic. One vocal faction, the 'Student Broad Left' seemed to take the stance that democracy was being reduced, not improved, in the name of financial cuts - however, much of this seemed unfounded, and by continually arguing for the status quo, the faction looked stupid.

First up was a debate about affiliation fees - a big topic. The conference elected to introduce a minimum fee of 250, and a maximum fee of 50,000. This benefits some of the massive universities, who currently pay more than that, and raises the fee for some small FE colleges. However, some of the big student unions are in dire financial problems and so capping the fee may prevent some disaffiliations.

Next up was a proposal to move the national conference from Blackpool Winter Gardens to Blackpool Pontins, in the name of cost-cutting and being able to keep everyone on one site. There was some confusion over whether it would save money though, as the Winter Gardens have apparently already been booked, although apparently again the two locations have the same owner and so this wouldn't be a problem. This conflict wasn't resolved, but the motion passed. Motions were also passed to reduce the food allocation from full board to B&B, and to cut the length of the conference by a night, whilst maintaining the number of conference hours.

Following that was a debate on the numbers of delegates which affiliated universities would be able to send to the national conference. What was passed was a reduction in the number of delegates, from 1-per-1000 students to 1-per-1400, with a cap at 16 delegates. The reduction means for a smaller, cheaper and more manageable conference. The cap was controversial and initially seems undemocratic, but coupled with the cap on affiliation fees and the reality that large delegations are often unfilled or uncontested it seems more of a fairer deal. An interesting compromise solution, involving 'curbing not capping' was rejected.

There were some other motions passed about FE colleges which I didn't understand (mostly because they referenced clauses from the NUS constitution without explaining what they were). Then time began to run out. At this point things began to get a bit absurd as in order for all the amendments and the main motion to be passed, they had to be voted on all together (despite all the constituent bits already being voted for by a majority). There were a couple of attempts to sabotage this process by the pro-status-quo group, but the whole thing got voted for and then everyone quickly buggered off to the pub to watch England win the footie.

As so much time was wasted at the beginning, there were a lot of things not discussed, including the 'compositing procedure', regional makeup, a cap on elections budgets, NUSSL membership, and ending 'factionalism' (the last three of these being proposed by UCL Union).

It remains to be seen whether UCL Union will accept these reforms as progress or not. Personally, I think that they're a step in the right direction, and that there was an impressive amount of support for reforms. However, I'm told that the national conference is a lot more bitchy and party-political. I think it would be a mistake for UCL to disaffiliate from the established national union though, even if it does have problems. NUS does provide us with some good services, a body for campaigning, and a national voice.

If we disaffiliate though, I can think of some good ways to spend that spare cash...