NUS leadership announces gutting of democracy - CAMPAIGN FOR NUS DEMOCRACY - please come and discuss in London on 21 October
1.45-3.15pm, Sunday 21 October
University of East London Docklands campus (Cyprus DLR)
Dear student activist,
For years, the democratic space within the National Union of Students has been progressively and deliberately narrowed, with fewer and fewer avenues for most student activists to get involved, and a national union more and more dominated by various cliques of Blairite and apolitical hacks. The result, inevitably, has been a collapse in NUS's campaigning profile and political culture, and defeat after defeat.
On 9 October, however, the leadership of NUS announced to the National Executive Committee that it wants to deal a death blow through a series of startlingly anti-democratic "reforms" - including the abolition of both conference and the NEC in their current form, ending the existence of a national union of students as we know it.
For a brief, initial summary of the changes being proposed by the farcical "Governnance Review", please see below.
Education Not for Sale its holding its gathering at the Docklands campus of the University of East London on Sunday 21 October. The focus will be on "Education for Freedom", discussing radical and democratic ideas for transforming our education system (for more details see the ENS website www.free-education.org/?p=392). However, we also want to put aside time, separate from our conference, to gather activists who want to launch a broad campaign for NUS democracy.
It is essential that such a campaign is not the property of a single organisation on the student left. We are taking the initative because we believe this is so important for us all. We invite other left organisations in the student movement, and all officers and activists who want to defend and extend NUS democracy so that we can win the radical, campaigning union students need, to come along on 21 October to help launch a campaign.
We are approaching all organisations in the student movement that we think will be interested, and hope to announce more shortly. Please get in touch if you would like to be involved, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or ringing 07815 490 837
Sofie Buckland, NUS National Executive and ENS
Heather Shaw, Education Not for Sale
A summary of the Governance Review's proposals:
(For Education Not for Sale's comments on the review, including nine positive proposals, published in September 2007, see www.free-education.org.uk/?p=385)
1. To split the NUS National Executive Committee into two bodies - the "Board" and the "Senate".
a) The Board will deal with supposedly "non-political" matters such as legal policies, the "strategic planning framework", the wages of senior management, development of budgets and estimates, scrutiny of financial performance, scrutiny of senior management and appointments. It will be comprised of the National President, five full-time officers (not clear which yet), three student members appointed by conference, and three to six external members (yes!) appointed by conference. Conference appointees will hold a longer term of office than elected officials (currently one year). The Board will meet four times a year.
b) The Senate will take over “political” roles: agreeing NUS priorities, agreeing interim policy between conferences, considering budgets and coordinating work across “zone” areas of policy and nations/regions. It’ll be comprised of the President, five Vice Presidents (rearranged to reflect zone responsibilities: see below), one additional member from each zone, two members from each liberation campaign, two members from each nation, two members from each social policy campaign, 15 ordinary members (some FE places guaranteed, effectively replacing the current block of 12) and non-voting external members from “appropriate” organisations like the British Medical Association.
In other words, the at least partially democratically accountable NUS NEC - which in practice is prevented from discussing crucial issues such as senior management remuneration, but could in theory take democratic control of decision making - will be replaced by a nightmare of bureaucratic complications, shielding decisions from all real accountability. The senior officers of NUS want to ensure that no one except them and the managers on whom they rely gets a say in guiding the direction of the union.
2. This effectively removes the current block of 12 part-time elected NEC members, with the political status of the 15 members that replace them not made clear - though we should emphasise that members of the Block of 12, currently subsisting on a meager £200 a month honorarium, will be replaced by “case-by-case” remuneration for work. These members will be committee members, not officers. The document is very cagey about how exactly they will be elected, but you can bet that it will not be by the direct, democratic STV election that currently allows dissident political voices representation on the Block of 12.
3. NUS’s Vice Presidents (currently Education, Welfare and Further Education) and Secretary and Treasurer will be replaced by 5 “zone” VPs – Welfare, Society and Citizenship, Higher Education, Further Education and Strong and Active Unions. The roles of Treasurer and Secretary will be moved to the partly unelected Board.
4. As a vague aside, the review suggests considering “support and remuneration” offered to full-time officers to “lower barriers to participation” and reconsidering terms of office to “balance” accountability with the “need for long term stability”. In other words, while part-time officers are moved from penury to non-existence, the position of the full-time officers will become even cushier, helping to strengthen their bureaucratic power base. No doubt NUS managers, whose wages we are not currently allowed to know, will be paid more too.
5. Policy debate at National Conference will be radically changed, with prior debates at five “zone” conferences early in the calendar year. These conferences will supposedly enable non-contentious policy to be passed, then simply presented to the renamed “Congress” for ratification, leaving time for “contentious” policy to be discussed. It is not clear how this “contentious” policy will be submitted, whether the same as the current system of passing it through unions direct to “Congress” or simply referred from zone conferences. In any case, the direct democratic representation of National Conference will be broken up, making it impossible for a single representative body to hold the leadership to account.
6. The review makes clear that zone conferences should be small (presumably to limit cost), suggesting one union, one vote. This is not typo: Manchester University, with more than twenty thousand full-time students, will get the same number of votes as Ruskin College, Oxford, which has less than three hundred. This is intended to leave time for Congress to “celebrate” the work of the national union, alongside short debates and AGM style reports of finances. And of course the delegates to these conferences will be almost entirely made up of sabbaticals, with far fewer part-time officers, almost no rank-and-file activists, almost no minority political voices and far fewer black students, disabled students, gay students and women.
7. The review also suggests removing the current requirement (applicable to Higher Education only) that conference delegates are elected by cross-campus ballot, suggesting that unions can be “trusted” to pick their own method and still ensure “representative” delegations. We are not joking! Alongside this measure it talks of reviewing numbers of delegates entitled to attend from each institution, keeping numbers (and therefore costs) low as membership levels rise (and as the fact part-time students count as 0.1 full time student in the delegate entitlement equation is recognized as undemocratic, boosting entitlements for many institutions). So we can probably look forward to far fewer delegates at the Congress too.
In summary: conference will be abolished and replaced by a fragmented system of representation with far fewer delegates, far more dominated by sabbatical officers. "Congress" will be much more like a rally than the current conference, "celebrating" rather than controlling the work of NUS. The NEC will be replaced by a complex system which shields important decisions from democratic accountability. Part-time representatives will be further excluded not only from decision-making but the resources necessary to actively participate, while a small number of full-time officers will become more secure. External organisations will, bizarrely, get representation at the highest levesl of NUS. Meanwhile, the rules which insist on democratic methods of electing representatives from student unions will be replaced by "trust" in letting sabbatical teams do whatever they want.
8. Worse still, there are rumours that the dominant forces on the NEC will succeed in calling an Extraordinary/Emergency NUS Conference to discuss these issues, thus avoiding the full debate before a much wider audience - and thus the much bumpier ride - they would receive at an ordinary national conference. (They will then be able to ask national conference 2008 to put the final seal on these changes, as a sort of fait accompli.) So much for both their supposed concern for democracy and their supposed desire to save money!