It wasn’t the happiest of starts. In July, just three weeks into her term as president of the National Union of Students, Megan Dunn found herself being censured by the organisation’s national executive committee.
In the eyes of the panel, which holds the NUS’ elected officers to account and sets policy between national conferences, Ms Dunn had broken the union’s policy on boycotting Israel by accepting sponsorship for an event from Coca-Cola, then a target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
What was equally striking was the breakdown of the votes: 20 to 13 against Ms Dunn, with three of the NUS’ five vice-presidents and several other elected officers voting against her.
Things didn’t get much better when, two months later, Ms Dunn publicly branded the subsequent meeting of the NEC a “disgrace”, after it voted for outright opposition to the teaching excellence framework. It was, she said, a missed opportunity to try to change the proposal for the better.
Most recently, scores of student activists signed a letter accusing Ms Dunn of acting in an “autocratic” manner, and of “abusing” her power, for withdrawing central support for a campus tour opposing the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy and ruling out working with the controversial advocacy group Cage. This time, four vice-presidents were against her.
Political divisions, and a nasty falling out, but what’s new? This is the NUS, after all.
What seems clear is that the politics of the student movement has shifted decisively to the left, reflecting the same wave of anti-establishment feeling that took Jeremy Corbyn to the top of the Labour Party, and that this was played out in elections to the NEC and to some officer posts.
While Mr Corbyn is to the left of his parliamentary party, in the case of the NUS, it is the NEC that is perceived to be more militant than Ms Dunn.
At a time when fundamental changes to higher education are on the table, do such deep divisions weaken the ability of the NUS to make the case for students?
Richard Brooks, the NUS’ vice-president (union development), argued that Ms Dunn was “being held hostage by a national executive council which is acting in a way which is both personal and outside its jurisdiction”, highlighting that the panel’s role was to hold officers to account, not to run the organisation.
“When we have a student movement that is disagreeing publicly on tactics as opposed to agreeing on the things we all believe in, like a fairer, more just society, that’s a problem,” Mr Brooks said. “Because of this, we lose credibility in places where we need it, and it’s only through having that credibility we can have impact for students’ unions and the students they represent.”
Mr Brooks, the only vice-president not to sign the letter that criticised Ms Dunn over Prevent, questioned whether the NEC represented the views of students’ unions, arguing that they wanted the NUS to engage with key policies such as the TEF.
Aaron Porter, associate director for governance at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, faced his own power struggles within the NUS as president in 2010-11, and said that it was “not helpful” for the NEC to be so opposed to Ms Dunn when she had won the presidency with a significant mandate.
A number of NEC seats are reserved for different parts of the student movement.
“Some of their constituencies represent quite minority views and that is a good thing, but it perhaps becomes a problem when some of those views override those of the president, who has the biggest mandate and the largest ability to influence and secure victories for the benefit of students,” Mr Porter said.
Those on the left of the NUS, however, argue that student democracy cannot be sacrificed just to make some officers’ jobs easier.
Shelly Asquith, the vice-president (welfare), said that many students believed the NUS had been “doing the same things for so long” and wanted change, and that the elections were the result of that.
This year’s NEC was, she said, the most representative ever in terms of women and ethnic minorities. These new members had tried to raise more left-wing and anti-establishment issues but had, Ms Asquith said, been “undermined” and “rubbished” – something that she said was an issue of serious concern.
“I think what there is now is a greater sense of checks and balances because [the] NEC previously was more in favour with the top leadership, it was almost a body where you could just pass through whatever you wanted, it was almost like a signing-off exercise,” she said. “Now I think we’ve got more accountability.”
Beth Redmond, an NEC member who stood unsuccessfully for the presidency earlier this year, said that Ms Dunn would do a better job of representing students if she paid more attention to the committee’s view, and consulted with members before taking decisions. “It’s the national union of Megan Dunn, as far as I can tell,” she said.
The key divide is on tactics, not policy, with the biggest fault line to date being the TEF.
“I don’t think being in a negotiating room should be a priority, especially if that means watering down your opinion on the TEF so they will let you into the negotiating room,” Ms Redmond said. “I don’t think we should be thanking the Tories for letting us in, we need to be vicious and we need to be fierce, and coming across as wet makes us look incredibly weak.”
With little sign of reconciliation, where does this leave the NUS?
A governance review is under way, and using technology to give a stronger voice to students’ unions in NUS policymaking is one idea that has been floated. History suggests, however, that the union is in for a bumpy ride: the last set of major reforms, which were perceived as watering down the power of the Left, failed to pass at the 2008 annual conference and required two extraordinary conferences before they could be adopted.
Ms Dunn, for her part, refuses to bow to calls for a more militant approach, and said that, while the disagreements were “frustrating”, they did not affect her ability to represent students.
“When I stood for election I was really clear that the NUS should always be in the room as well as protesting outside it,” she said. “I feel we represent members best when we represent voices in that debate.”
Ms Dunn said that, while she welcomed being held to account, “it isn’t the job of the NEC to govern the NUS”.
“Of course decisions should be consultative and we should [be] taking into account the views of the NEC and membership,” she said. “As with any students’ union, there often has to be a final call and those calls are tough and those decisions are for us, but I am the president and sometimes those decisions have to be made.”