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Of polemics, ideologues and arrogance

For those attending the highly entertaining and always worthwhile Annual General Meeting of the Students Union last week, or for those who attended the Sussex Not for Sale meeting on the Credit Crunch a few weeks ago, several of the uglier traits of our otherwise nobly engaged student body displayed themselves.

If you don’t know, the USSU AGM is one of, if not the, largest AGM in the country. Speaking to sabbatical officers of other unions with a far larger student populations, it is clear that most other AGMs hover around the 20 – 70 mark; such a huge turnout from us puts most of them to shame, as well as providing an enormous mandate for our elected sabbatical officers (turnout in sabb elections is also much higher here than elsewhere).

This is all well and good. However, certain predictable debates take place; for the second time that I have been to the AGM a rowdy debate about whether or not to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students took place; the only difference this time was that this debate was sharpened by the recent furore over the new Constitution that has been proposed by the NUS leadership. In the end, it was decided to have a cross-campus ballot on the issue following the final decision on that new constitution. If, as is expected, that constitution is approved at annual conference, expect a referendum and accompanying campaigns sometime in the summer term.

The history of the relationship between Sussex and the NUS is a poor one. For years all this union did was turn up once a year to annual conference, behave badly, ignore all the other smaller regional meetings, and then leave wandering why everyone disliked Sussex so much, although this has changed in recent years.

If we are in a minority on many issues it is not because we are different or somehow special, but because we only engage in issues that we deem to care about. When I attended a regional meeting, I was struck not by the difference of ourselves to other Unions, but the enormous similarities in what we do, and how we do them; we might disagree with the majority of Unions on the Governance Review, but dwelling on this is to ignore the far larger (and actually far more important) other issues we do agree on; Keeping the Cap, No Platform, the Liberation Campaigns, etc. To extend that further, the enormous number of activities (that’s sports and societies) that students here do, which are replicated across the country. Opportunities exist to extend and enhance these through the NUS – unfortunately we are afflicted by a kind of tunnel vision that boils every debate down to a small number of issues that place an enormous intellectual chasm between us and the rest of the National Union, with us as an aloof, arrogant and elitist outsider that refuses to engage the NUS in a constructive manner.

What struck me about the NUS debate at the AGM this time around was not so much the content of the debate, but the sheer arrogance of it. It was suggested, repeatedly, that the NUS had never carried out any of our ‘demands’ – as if, after years of engaging in polemical rants about Blairite wannabes and neoliberalism once a year, anyone in the NUS was likely to care about the ‘demands’ of one Student Union (a small one at that) among thousands of others. It was also suggested that the only way to make the NUS leadership take us seriously was to leave our National Union. I doubt very much whether they would give two hoots about our leaving; certainly they expected as much last year. Aside from the £35,000 we give them, we have contributed little of real value in much of the last few years. As a result, aside from the benefits of being such a large purchasing consortium, we have gotten little out of it.

To continue the analogy, those of you who attended the Sussex Not for Sale meeting about the Credit Crunch would have witnessed a similar attitude; not one of a constructive engagement about issues directly relevant to students at Sussex (such as staff pensions, which were mentioned perhaps twice in 2 hours), but repeated, disconnected ramblings from the perspective of a world view that died sometime around when Stalin first started sending his citizens to the gulags. This is not to discredit the carefully considered and well thought through comments of Professor Van der Pijl; but rather to note how SNS runs a serious risk of being hijacked by that same attitude; that highly exclusive arrogance, an intellectual superiority that demands no dissent; that fails to understand the right of others to disagree; that sees violent protests against the Royal Navy and EDO as legitimate, whilst at the same time seeking to ban them from campus for supporting violence. There are very serious, pressing issues which the student body and SNS needs to engage with; staff pensions are one, but this will not happen with a persistent failure to listen to, rather than to lecture, the student body at large, and especially those who take the time to turn up to vitally important events as SNS or the AGM.

It was worthwhile noting that the debate about the NUS took place in the presence of the NUS general secretary.

When asked about what the NUS spends its money on, or what campaigns it runs, or why it doesn’t support free education, Richard Budden answered directly and honestly.

When questioned about a particularly ugly incident of racism at an NUS meeting, he answered, again, honestly, with all the relevant information and with no small amount of humility about the NUS’s failings. It would help Sussex a great deal if we could do the same when it came to ours.

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5 Comments

  1. I wish to fundamentally disagree with your reference to the Unions active engagement in NUS. I personally have been quite closely involved with NUS over the past two years and can say we have tried the utmost to become engaged. We have travelled the country, submitted policy, got involved in debates and constantly questioned and tried to hold the NUS to account.

    The problem is we’re now in a situation of “What’s the point”. When our submissions haven’t been outright ignored, we have often been mocked and jeered, our positions marginalised. Yes it provides a good service in many aspects, however its politically defunct.

    And it isn’t some bizzare elitism that we remain opposed to NUS (although it is in some cases). Its because we have genuine criticisms that they simply cannot answer to, namely the whole anti democratic process that surrounds NUS at every juncture. Under the current leadership and structures I have no confidence in there ability to defend student’s interests nationally, a view which is shared by many and increasing.

    I have already outlined my arguements of staying in the NUS (See Why Say No to Disaffiliation) and the need to fight within. However, next year the review on Higher Education is coming up and the NUS isn’t mobilising, but instead watering down its arguments and taken to casual discussion. Given how the last 10 years of this tactic has brought us near nothing and yet they have not learnt from their mistakes.

    In Europe, we have seen victories as mass mobilisation of students, teachers, staff and parents are in the process of fighting cuts, privitisation and bringing back free education, yet the NUS calls this “utopian” and takes us on a route that has failed time and time again.

    We need to change the NUS from within and fight to be represented. But NUS has staunchly remained committed so far to lay down and “lobby” and sell discount cards rather than proactively engage its own membership to fight.

    The question everyone is asking is why do we pay money and affiliate to a group that no longer represents us or our policies in anyway?

    Reply
  2. Lee, I do make a small qualifier to the argument about our involvement in the NUS, although perhaps it should have been made more strongly;

    I don’t wish to discredit yours and many other peoples more recent efforts in it, but I was specifically referring to what we did (or didn’t do) pre-governance review, most notably our failure to so much as to write a submission, or attend any consultations on it, the first time it came around. Our efforts to derail it, of which I was a part, are laudable, and as you point out in your article have led to some concessions.

    However, the overwhelming problem remains that we are in a severe minority on this issue; others support us on the governance and other things but our overall history with our national union remains a very poor one. There is nothing wrong with being in a minority; but if the new constitution is passed it won’t be because a ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ (to paraphrase hilary clinton) pulled a fast one. It’ll be because a large majority of student unions voted for it, three times (if we include last years EGM, which was appalling). It wont be as if, after 2 years, unions haven’t had the oppurtunity to debate the issue.

    No one denies that there are problems with our national union, but ive come to the conclusion that they are mainly problems perennial to all student unions; that many of the people most active and involved are simply using them as a stepping stone to other careers, specifically political ones (hence the widespread mirroring and/or non-opposition to government policy) the turnover of leadership is huge, policies lack continuity, and its senior management is, like all student unions, very inexperienced.

    Whats needed, and I think you will agree with me on this, is a long term effort to convince other student unions about the need for a different understanding of how the NUS achieves its aims. To explain, the question should not be whether we wish to be a union based on mass membership OR a political lobbying organisation; but rather which one of those options better protects the welfare and education of students in higher and further education in this country (which is surely the NUSs goal, no?). Personally I do not believe it is an either/or question in the first place, and that different circumstances call for NUS campaigning efforts to take different forms.

    Comparisons with other charities are valid here; take the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (an odd example I know). The RSPB is effective BOTH because it has a highly qualified and respected policy advisory capability AND because it has a mass membership of over a million fee-paying individuals throughout the country, which it can contact, seek funds from, the sheer number of whom highlight how seriously politicians should take its point of view.

    A couple of points to finish off; the RSPB is still deemed ‘radical’ enough to warrant BAA trying to bar its members from going anywhere near heathrow prior to climate camp of 2007. Secondly, one of the most radical NUS presidents of all time, branded by the foreign and commonwealth office as a ‘troublemaker acting with malice aforethought’ was, in fact, Jack Straw way back in 1969.

    Reply
  3. Who is anonymizzle? btw i have little intention of running for a sabb position, sorry to dissapoint.

    Reply

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