Hundreds of delegates from universities across the country gathered at the NUS National Conference to vote on official NUS policy for the coming year and to elect new senior union officials.
The conference took place from April 8th to 11th in Liverpool and saw the re-election of incumbent NUS president Toni Pearce.
Pearce was re-elected in what is being described as a landslide victory with 62% of the votes. Pearce had already served one term in role and was notably the first NUS president not to have been to university. A standing ovation met the announcement of her re-election and she took to the podium to declare her intentions for the coming year.
Leading the organisation in the lead up to the 2015 general election, Pearce also pledged to campaign for a ‘new deal for the next generation’, putting pressure on politicians to improve opportunities for students. She said: ‘We’re going to focus on the run-up to the election and think about how we register students to vote.
‘I want to create more jobs and tackle unpaid internships, as well as build communities. I also want to do more to encourage women in leadership.’
She went on to say: ‘Never let anyone tell you that we’re not already a ﬁghting, campaigning, winning movement.’
She went on to remind delegates of campaign wins ranging from scrapped tuition fees for apprentices, to saving £350 million of the student opportunity fund, Pearce argued that change is more important than ever before in the year of a general election.
She shared her vision for ‘a student movement that’s more representative than we’ve ever been. A student movement that listens, that campaigns from the classroom to the boardroom – on the streets and in your communities.’
Also elected to full time officer roles at the conference were Megan Dunn, Joe Vinson and Raechel Mattey to the roles of Vice Presidents for Higher Education, Further Education and Union Development respectively. Colum McGuire was also elected as VP Welfare while Piers Telemacque was voted VP Society and Citizenship.
The first day of the conference saw motions opposing all fees associated with exam resits and the privatisation of student loans.
A motion to oppose the political party UKIP attracted the most controversy. Daniel Cooper, speaking in favour of the motion, said, ‘We should be alarmed by the rise of UKIP, a party that represents the worst of UK society; racism, xenophobia and a narrow minded approach that could cut us off from Europe. UKIP voters are looking for answers, but UKIP have no answers. Immigration is not the cause of job losses and lower wages. Business and politicians are. Let us tell UKIP that their politics are not welcome in our movement.’
However, members of the party went on to criticise the decision. Jack Duffin, chairman of UKIP’s youth wing, Youth Independence, and one of the four NUS presidential candidates, said, ‘I am very disappointed that NUS has voted to oppose UKIP on a national level at its conference.
‘This will alienate many students who are involved in UKIP but also people who hold a different view to the handful of students at NUS Conference.
‘This shows their disregard for democracy and disdain for alternative, mainstream political views. We as a movement do not believe NUS should not be marginalising thousands of students and societies across their campuses. This is bizarre, pathetic posturing once again demonstrates how the NUS lacks focus on the issue that students really care about: education.’
Motions in favour of setting up a legal fund to support arrested student protesters and for controls on police on campuses were also passed.
The latter motion sparked debate over the #copsoffcampus campaign, which advocates a system similar to that in other countries, whereby police require the permission of both student unions and university management before they can enter a university campus. Daniel Cooper, Vice President of the University of London Union, said, ‘In many countries it’s taken for granted that police do not walk onto campus whenever they like. NUS should campaign for laws that police cannot come onto campus without permission. In the last year in the majority of cases police have not acted in students’ interest, they have made students’ life more difficult.’
But some conference attendees questioned the motion, arguing that ‘police shouldn’t have to go through the student union every time they want to go on campus’, going on to point out that victims of harassment in need of police support may not want to go through their Students’ Union.
There was further controversy over a proposal for a national demonstration, with critics pointing out the lack of clarity over the aims of such a protest. A delegate from Liverpool said, ‘I love a demo, but the proposers of this amendment don’t care what this demo is for. It’s a demo for demo’s sake.’ The motion failed by 285 votes to 341.
In the wake of University and College Union strikes over pay disparities among staff, the conference passed a motion supporting a 5:1 pay ratio for all university staff, whereby the highest-paid employees could not be given a salary more than five times higher than that of the lowest-paid employees.
Hundreds of students and delegates travelled from across the country for the event and many say they enjoyed the lively atmosphere and discussion.
Alex Turner, a student at the University of Nottingham, said: ‘It’s day two and I’m shattered. It’s been fun but I’ve barely slept. Everyone has been so friendly and it’s good to meet so many like-minded people.’
Mina Ell, a student at Petra College, has been in fancy dress for the conference, dressing as Harry Potter and as Robin Hood to raise money for the charity Mind. She said: ‘It’s my first time here and it’s been really fun because I’m in costume and people keep coming up to me to give me a hug and to donate.’
In the final session of the Conference, delegates passed an emergency motion which resolved to support the return of teenager Yashika Bageerathi to the UK to finish her education. The student was at the centre of a highly publicised campaign to prevent her deportation before her studies were finished in the UK and the NUS resolved to support her school in fundraising for her return and completion of her studies.