NUS can rebuild links between education and citizenship

Despite hard times and fruitless protest, there is still power in a union, argues David Reed

March 21, 2013

Source: Jamie Jones

When tens of thousands marched through the streets of London in November 2010 ahead of the tuition-fee vote, the National Union of Students had strong political clout.

The signed personal pledges it had obtained from the Liberal Democrats, a progressive party in government, were a powerful symbol that apparently committed the party to the ideal of free higher education.

We all know what happened next. The MPs’ promises were not kept.

Last November’s poorly attended march ended in the current NUS president, Liam Burns, being heckled off the stage amid a hail of satsumas, and it has become apparent that the union’s future as a political force is as bleak as that of the party that betrayed it. To most young people, it seems that the NUS means little more than a card that gets you a discount at Topshop. And with the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance, Aimhigher and youth careers services, it sometimes feels as if that discount is on its way to being the only assistance on hand for young people.

Amid cuts to education and, according to the Prince’s Trust, a 168 per cent rise since 2008 in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds out of work for longer than two years, the task for the NUS could not be more clear: to demand a future for young people in the UK. But students’ ability to have a say in that future has been weakened by the changing role of students’ unions, the creeping corporatisation of higher and further education, and a failure to match growing student populations with improvements in representation and infrastructure.

Universities, in particular, with their strategic focus on the “student experience”, have forced student organisations into the role of quality watchdogs. Mediated through this partnership, an NUS that lobbies to improve student representation, widen access and make education affordable threatens to lead student advocates into consumerist arguments about value for money that neglect the bigger picture.

The NUS is already addressing this conundrum. But if it really wants to win the case for public investment in young people, it must go further and revive the historical link between education and citizenship.

If anything got lost in the doomed battle against the tripling of tuition fees, it was the old idea that education lies at the heart of our responsibility for one another. Instead, the debate was all about whether the graduate earning premium outweighed the new projected levels of student debt. Some brilliant academics, sector spokespeople and NUS representatives continue to argue against this way of framing the argument. But stronger evidence is needed to demonstrate the claim that students provide a transformative public value that justifies strong public investment.

If the NUS is to have any relevance, students and young people need to develop a generational sense of purpose - and responsibility - while they are in education, and they need to be supported as citizens to make a positive difference to society. Campaigns and marches help, but equally important are volunteering, charity work and social entrepreneurship - locally as much as nationally.

To facilitate this, the NUS will need to find a way of wedding its traditional democratic basis in unionism with innovative approaches to connecting students with the causes they care about. The two absolutely must go together.

Student organisations must form open, collaborative partnerships with charities and social enterprises to create a culture in which student volunteering becomes the norm. Organisations that are solely focused on supporting youth social action - such as the National Citizen Service and charities including City Year, Student Hubs, Teach First and Envision - should form a key part of this.

Too often, in my experience, the existence of external organisations working with students has been seen as a threat to the legitimacy of a UK student movement. In fact, the opposite is true.

Most importantly, students’ unions and the NUS must take the lead in implementing a culture change. They must be at the forefront of advocating to our education providers the importance of embedding citizenship into the very fabric of education.

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