A key vote at next week’s annual conference of the National Union of Students (NUS) could see the organisation transformed from a campaigning body into a “professional lobbying group”.
Over 1,000 delegates will vote on whether to ratify a “governance review” that will abolish the union’s annual conference and national executive – replacing them with a congress that “celebrates the year” and a senate that will rarely meet.
This would leave power solely in the hands of full-time “professionals”.
The review is being promoted by NUS national executive members who describe themselves as “organised independents”.
It is also backed by the Labour Students organisation.
They believe that in order to influence government policy and future reviews of higher education funding, the NUS must drop its campaigning and become something more akin to a think-tank.
Many among the organised independents and Labour Students feel that demonstrations and protests are old fashioned and that they present “unrealistic demands” upon the government.
The NUS has even declared that the demand for free education is unattainable, and therefore must be dropped.
They argue that all that has to go in order for the NUS to be taken seriously by the heads of Britain’s universities and top politicians.
Conferences involving elected delegates and an executive that includes a few left activists are regarded as an obstacle to the transformation.
In case the proposed changes fail to put a stop to the left, the review will create a new NUS board empowered to veto any decision passed at the congress or senate that could “put the organisation in legal or financial peril”.
Though the board is supposed to be student-led, 40 percent of its members will be appointed rather than elected.
Some supporters of the review believe that these changes to the NUS’s structure are just the first step.
For them the final goal should be the eradication of politics from student unions, turning them into multi-million pound businesses.
The governance review will face opposition at NUS conference from those who are determined that the union should be transformed into an organisation that coordinates student struggles against rising tuition fees, racism and Islamophobia, the “war on terror” and climate change.
“The stakes are incredibly high,” says Rob Owen, a Student Respect supporter on the NUS national executive.
“If these changes go through, the ability of student activists in colleges to have an impact on the policy of their union will be so curtailed that democracy will be almost non-existent in the NUS.”
Rob sees the attempt to change NUS as a reflection of the depoliticised way in which many local student unions are being run.
He says, “A student union should be a place where people can come together and find resources that will help them campaign, that informs and educates people, and is somewhere good to socialise.
“But many student unions are now just a commercial venture.
“In many ways the unions are travelling in the opposite direction to students themselves.
“Growing radicalism is leading to healthy activism on a lot of campuses – particularly in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Where student unions attempt to situate themselves in that activism, they become popular and democratic institutions.
“In these places people think of the student union as ‘their’ union, not just a bar.”