Why I ... think the National Union of Students is in urgent need of reform

六月 28, 2002

In every student union across the country, officer handover has been taking place as the next generation of full-time student representatives prepares to embark on its time in office.

The next year is going to be hugely important for the future of student support in this country. There is now a wealth of evidence and a head of steam behind the campaign to return grants for the poorest students. The government is enacting prime minister Tony Blair's party conference pledge to "review the balance between students and the state". Yet rather than improving, the situation could get far worse.

Despite the pledges of the last election's manifesto, top-up fees are getting an increasing press and the threat of commercial interest rates looms large. The doubling of the UK average student debt since 1997 means we are now only £1,000 off US levels. If the government review recommends either top-up fees or commercial loans, British graduates would become the most indebted in the world. This would lead to increased elitism in higher education and huge pressures on the National Union of Students.

Alongside the well-known funding campaign, there are two crucial areas of expansion for the student movement - getting members more involved in our work, and reform. The participation of the majority of our members is crucial to our campaigning success. This year, using the website as another campaigning tool, a third of a million students received an email on the day of the local elections urging them to vote. Moreover, more than 100,000 students have signed up to the PayupTony.com website.

New technology offers huge opportunities: we can offer welfare advice, freshers' handbooks and campaign information across the movement. Students in further education colleges without an active local student union can benefit from a huge increase in services and support. If the student movement, local unions and the NUS alike can harness this power, then we can really improve the lives of our members.

The last NUS conference saw a massive debate on NUS reform, which called for major changes. The influence of political groupings in the student movement is far greater at national level than at local level - though the gap was always there, it is becoming a chasm. There are only a handful of local student union officers who are in one of the political groupings. Though local officers care about political issues, they increasingly reject the need for organised political groups within the student movement. The structures of the NUS must find more ways to engage these officers throughout the political process. The NUS also needs to develop a manageable conference size - delegates are still calculated in the same ratio as they were in 1922, when the NUS was founded, despite the student population having increased many fold.

The NUS has so much to be proud of in its history, from ensuring the political autonomy of student unions to being one of the only unions to defeat former prime minister Margaret Thatcher (she scrapped her plans for tuition fees with no means test as a result of an NUS campaign); from changing opinions about apartheid in this country to developing the best student discount card in Europe.

All of these successes have come only as a result of having one national union and a united student voice. But we need to reform, and the forward-looking political groups within the NUS need support to ensure the changes needed are ratified. We must make the step now, or risk ruining a national union that is the envy of student organisations throughout the world.



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