National Union of Students

March 12, 1999

Full of ex-servicemen after the first world war, long-haired radicals in the 1970s and people with pagers in the 1990s, style in the National Union of Students has changed.

But many of the central issues it debates have stayed constant. Teaching, grants and further education were on the 1930s' agenda, just as they will be at this week's conference.

The union was born in February 1922 when British students decided to affiliate to the new Confederation Internationale des Etudiants. It started with just 14 members from England and Wales. Scottish students, who had their own federation, joined in 1971.

Membership has increased to about 900 further and higher education institutions. Imperial College and Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews universities are the only big institutions not affiliated.

Apathy hit the movement in the run-up to the second world war, when the confederation became identified with fascism. But post-war membership soared, only to slump again in the 1950s. It was 1967 before the NUS staged the first of its big sit-ins - at the London School of Economics.

Student radicalism took off into the 1970s, dominated by the women's movement and campaigns against racism and fascism. But political campaigning was curbed by legislation in the 1980s. In 1996 the annual conference voted to drop its 16-year policy of returning to a full state maintenance grant.

These days, union members criticise the executive for including too many people who are in it for a political career - Labour has six former presidents in Parliament.

There is also debate over whether services or political activism are the union's main role. Its international outlook has faded.

Other higher education organisations describe NUS as "very slick" nowadays, depending on who is managing it. But conferences are consistent: punctuated with votes of no confidence, stormings of the stage and, occasionally, streakers.

People is edited by Harriet Swain and researched by Lynne Williams.

Send all information to Lynne Williams. The THES Admiral House 66-68 East Smithfield London E1 9XY

Tel 0171 782 3375

Full listings of grants, appointments and honours appear on The THES website

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