News Editor Tom Eden looks at the arguments for and against the Students’ Union’s membership of the National Union of Students
Students will be able to choose whether Cardiff University Students’ Union remains part of the National Union of Students (NUS) with a referendum being held over three days.
The referendum, which will take place from April 16th–18th, is the result of a unanimous vote from the Ministry of Change and has caused passionate campaigning from students supporting both sides.
Supporters of keeping our Student Union as a member of the NUS have united to argue for a ‘yes’ vote, whilst opponents who believe that we would be better out of the organisation have formed a ‘No to NUS’ campaign.
The NUS is an organisation of 600 students’ unions across the UK. Through this they seek to represent the interests of more than seven million of their students. The NUS’ mission, according to their website, is “to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions”. Their three key values are stated to be ‘equality’, ‘democracy’ and ‘collectivism’.
In 2012, there were nine comparable votes at universities about NUS affiliation. Of those universities, six were existing members of the NUS and all six chose to remain with the NUS with an average 85 per cent ‘yes’ vote. None voted to leave. From those not previously affiliated, one voted to join and two voted not to join.
The debate about our affiliation has focused on both the commercial and the political wings of the NUS, with arguments about cost and representation prominent in both sides’ promotions.
Affiliation to the NUS for this academic year (2012/13) cost the Students’ Union £51,816.30 (or 2.15 per cent of its budget), and in addition to this, there are a wide range of tangible and intangible costs and benefits from being a member of the NUS.
The motion that was put to the Ministry of Change claimed that “the money we save [from not having to pay the affiliation fee], for example, could give every sports society £1,000 every single year, hire more staff or giving students improved events”.
The ‘yes’ campaign challenge the idea that the cost of affiliation is a good reason for leaving and cite a cost breakdown from the NUS that shows that, for this initial cost, we get £130,000 in commercial benefits alone.
Southampton University’s Students’ Union commissioned a review of the financial impact of joining the NUS. This report estimated that they could save around £32,000 by remaining unaffiliated.
A great deal of the discrepancy between the claimed financial costs and benefits arises from the difficulty in quantifying the savings for the union achieved by NUSSL – the NUS’ purchasing consortium, which acts as a singular buyer for universities affiliated with the NUS in an effort to reduce costs. One perk of this, highlighted by the ‘yes’ campaign, is a ‘free beer’ policy, with £40,000 of cost-price alcohol given to us for free. They argue that any other organisation or wholesaler would not be able to achieve this.
Despite this, the ‘no’ campaign argues that there are many alternatives to having our products supplied to us by this NUS purchasing consortium. Local and independent wholesalers, which would not charge any affiliation fee and would not restrict or control what products can be sold, have been suggested. This is underpinned by the argument that our union is large enough to secure contracts for products at a lower price than through the NUS.
A cost-benefit analysis undertaken by an elected officer of Durham University in 2011 highlighted several key factors. It indicates that the most visible benefit to NUS affiliation is the discount awarded in shops across the country to those with a student card of an NUS-affiliated university. They do note that some people have been able to get student discount without an NUS student card, but that officially most retail outlets require this. Research carried out by the NUS shows that 94 per cent of students polled believe NUS offering a student discount card is either a ‘Positive’ or ‘Very Positive’ thing. The NUS Extra card, which provides further discounts such as half-price Spotify Premium, would not be able to be sold by the Union – something the report says makes £4.50 for the Union from every £11 card sold.
It has also been pointed out that there may be a large amount of money wasted by the NUS. The ‘no’ campaign pointed out that, last week, 600 NUS delegates were staying in Hilton hotels, rather than opting for cheaper alternatives.
A further consideration would be the cost of leaving, with supporters of the ‘yes’ campaign saying that many of the services that the NUS provide would have to be researched and replaced, and the cost and manpower is potentially dangerous at a time when our union is on a very tight budget and having to make redundancies.
The debate about the financial implication has drawn criticism from some. Megan David, the incumbent Welfare Officer, commented on a discussion about the legitimacy of the £130,000 benefit on Facebook, saying “Im [sic] concerned that we seem to think that we are able to put a cost on having a union to defend the rights of students…”
This expression of frustration at a financial price being put on the role of the NUS reminds many of the other side of union affiliation. As mentioned previously, the trio of values the NUS state they embody – equality, democracy and collectivism – are based on the political ambition of the organisation.
The NUS, like Cardiff University Students’ Union, is run by elected student officers, with decisions being made by NUS officers, students’ union officers and students. Similar to the financial aspects of membership, the representation part is both widely praised and criticised.
The ‘no’ campaign argues that the NUS are unrepresentative of students for several reasons. Firstly, there is the accusation that it is controlled by a party political agenda and a disproportionate amount of time is spent by power groups within the NUS fighting among themselves rather than fighting for students. Other accusations come in the form of criticism of its leadership and its policies – that, ultimately, too few people know who the NUS president is and what the NUS does.
They also claim that it dictates to our union and to Cardiff’s students; for example, when there was an attempt to limit the freedom of speech available to our student media by trying to implement a no-platform policy – refusing a platform for far-right organisations. There is a new policy by the NUS to tackle ‘lad culture’, but this, it is argued, was created from research conducted on 40 women. Furthermore, this year, they have moved to try to ban pole dancing societies and themed nights out.
Those arguing to keep Cardiff in the NUS believe that many of the things that the NUS do and provide are irreplaceable. There are a large number of NUS-run campaigns to represent the views of minorities, such as the LGBT+, ethnic and disabled student communities. This extends to the provision of free legal help to students. A recent example of this was when the NUS gave legal help to international students at London Met University, who were at risk of being sent home after the university was stripped of its right to sponsor students from outside the European Economic Area, after evidence of abuse was found.
The NUS also supplies training for the elected officers at students’ unions, both full- and part-time, throughout the academic year. However, as pointed out in the report by Durham’s elected officer, NUS affiliation does not “cover the [financial] costs of these officer-training activities”.
The Durham report also makes clear that “the NUS, given its sheer size, is the most effective form of representation” that we can benefit from at a national level. Cardiff University students make up 1.2 per cent of the students nationwide, so the argument from the ‘yes’ campaign states that our voice would be far smaller and weaker without the NUS – while the ‘no’ side believes this makes it less focused on students in Cardiff. There is a Welsh wing of NUS – NUS Wales – whose work was cited by the Welsh Education Minister as a key reason for not raising tuition fees for Welsh students.
Those who would like us to leave the NUS believe that our Union’s own elected officers are a suitable alternative to the NUS. They say that they represent, protect and defend Cardiff Students better than the NUS due to their familiarity with local and relevant issues that affect our students.
There is undoubtedly a polarised and passionate conflict of opinions and arguments that have defined this debate. However, between 9am on April 16th and midday on April 18th, you will be able to have your say. You can vote online at www.cardiffstudents.com by logging in with your student details. In line with Union practice, 10 per cent of the student body must vote.
Your voice will be heard and the consequence of the vote either way will be of huge importance to the future of your Student Union. Please vote.
With thanks to Ryan Hunter and Harry Thompson for information on the ‘No to NUS’ and ‘Keep Cardiff in the NUS’ campaigns respectively.
While all information contained within this article has been investigated to the highest possible level and has aimed to present it in an objective manner, not all information has been independently verified.