In depth: NUS who?

FOLLOWING discontent amongst some of the student body over the National Union of students’ latest Demo in November, Aberystwyth Student Media took to campus to interview students as to their real perception of NUS.

We polled over 100 students, asking if they’d heard of NUS, what they thought they did, if they felt represented and what they’d want them to do.

The overall outcome of the poll was a general feeling of disconnection between NUS and the student body, with almost 50% of students thinking the organisation was only to provide the NUS Extra (discount) card and a further 7% having never heard of NUS at all. When asked about the Demo, a small amount of students knew what its purpose was – and only 13 students realised that NUS campaigned for students’ right at all.

When asked if they felt represented by NUS, only 24% agreed, with a majority of 56% saying they didn’t feel as if their personal views were represented at all.

Many students complained about the lack of advertising for any of these events, stating they’d be happy to go and support the campaigns if they knew about them. Over half the students polled either said they couldn’t comment on what they’d want from NUS as they didn’t know what was currently available or asked for more advertising and information.

Aberystwyth students made up a small part of the Demo in November 2012; the Students’ Union sent 11 students to the march through London. Whether through lack of knowledge, funds or eagerness, students from this University were poorly represented.

After the Demo, the NUS published this article, promising to “take the enthusiasm and momentum back to our campuses and communities to create real and lasting change”. They said that they’ve “been busy putting together a calendar of campaigns for students to get involved in, shape and take forward… shaped by our message: educate, employ and empower” but this poll appears to prove the opposite.

With the next round of NUS elections having just opened and the emergence of the satirical campaign ‘Inanimate Rod for NUS #1’, started by an Aberystwyth student, it appears as if students appear to be beginning to express their exasperation.

After collecting the results of this poll, we put our findings to NUS Wales President Stephanie Lloyd and NUS Vice President (Higher Education) Rachel Wenstone. Read the full interview below.

Grace Burton (GB) interviewed Rachel Wenstone, NUS UK Vice-President for Higher Education (RW) and Stephanie Lloyd, President of NUS Wales (SL) about how NUS is perceived at Aberystwyth University and their plans for across Wales and the UK in 2013.

Steph Lloyd and Rachel Wenstone

Steph Lloyd, NUS Wales President, and Rachel Wenstone, NUS UK Vice-President for Higher Education

GB: From an Aberystwyth angle; we only had 11 students go to the Demo last November. Do you think the demo is a cost-effective way of representing all students, especially those living away from London?

RW: In terms of NUS UK, we are bound by the policy that passes at the National Conference, which is made up from institutions from across the UK – from Northern Ireland to Cornwall and up to Scotland – and we have to respect the mandate of the conference.

Those arguments were made on conference floor, and the conference still voted for a demo (I also voted in favour of a demo this time) and I think that we have to respect the mandate of conference. We also have to recognise there’s an awful lot of anger and a feeling of recklessness in the student movement about where to take the movement, how to show the government we’re unhappy with what’s going on. Obviously the situation in Wales is different because the fees and funding that was won by NUS Wales keeps their fees lower than in the rest of the UK. That keeps funding for higher students compared to the rest of England. I think this obviously has an impact on students; if students from Wales aren’t feeling it to the same extent as students in England are because they’re not paying £9,000 [Welsh students attending Welsh Universities], the feeling and need to get up and march and advocate about it is going to be different.

SL: From our perspective in NUS Wales, we did as much as we could to promote and support Unions taking students to the Demo. As we say, we recognised the democratic mandate of conference (we have our own), but the Demo was passed post-our conference, so WNEC took the position to advertise it and encourage as many students and Unions as possible from Wales to get involved. There were a number of Unions that decided not to take anyone at all; there were some Unions that took a small group, like Aberystwyth; there were some which took coachloads, like Bangor. It was what each individual Union decided to do on that issue. We knew that the issues were different, we were very clear when we gave briefings on the issues in Wales that yes, we make our own policies and decisions in Wales, but there’s no denying the impact that any decision made in Westminster, especially about tuition fees, has in Wales – there’s a reason we’ve got a cap of £9,000 as well, even though we have the Welsh Tuition fee grant.

For us, it was really about following the mandate of conference, giving people the opportunity to go and get involved if they wanted to, but again it’s not the only tactic we use to influence and represent students – it’s one of many, many things that we do throughout the year.

RW: I agree. It’s interesting when you talk about cost-effective ways of representing students – this week we’ve been doing lots of roadshows or workshops around the country on ‘pounds in your pocket’ research and the impact of student finance, and also on access and access agreements, and they are very different ways of campaigning in many respects as it’s much more about getting the movement up to scratch with the issue; giving them the research, giving them the training, and how that then impacts in their campaigning is huge, and we can see that through access groups and how students’ unions have won on bursaries over fee raises, so we do have to use a multitude of different ways in educating and campaigning and making our point.

GB: Do you think there’s a South Wales bias within NUS Wales and do you think this affects students’ engagement with NUS?

SL: I think there’s no way of denying the fact that the three full-time officers that we have this year and the three that we had last year come from institutions in the South, but I think what you have to do is look at this rather in a two, three year snapshot – we traditionally have had officers from all over Wales, running, getting involved, running for elections – last year my opposition for President was, in fact, the previous President of Aberystwyth [Jon Antoniazzi]. We move our events around Wales as much as we possibly can (obviously I can see how that would be a perception but the reality, when it’s put in context, the amount of work we do across Wales, I personally don’t think that’d have a massive impact with people getting involved).

GB: We polled over 100 students around our Students’ Union and we found that about 60% said they didn’t feel represented by NUS and the poll also indicated that people perceive NUS to be the Extra Card; have you got any plans to get students to understand or engage beyond this?

RW: We get asked this quite a lot. We have 7 million members and the possibility of actually engaging with them on a one-to-one basis is extremely difficult. People’s engagement with NUS through the Extra Card is a good thing – the Extra Card brings in thousands of thousands of pounds for students’ unions and the students’ movement; that’s really positive and enables us to do the work. The difficulty with NUS is that obviously it’s political; it’s a political organisation and we’re being held politically accountable for things that we do, and that’s a good thing.

If a union does something you disagree with, you don’t feel represented by them. Now actually, away from the politics of motions and all the rest of it, just because you don’t agree politically with the stance of something it doesn’t mean that they’re not representing that student who then goes and talks to the sector, or to ministers, to Westminster or wherever, and it’s trying to separate that stuff. For example, when we run our access agreement workshops, and places like Northumbria are able to transfer every penny from fee waivers into bursaries, perhaps students at the intuition don’t necessarily know that, perhaps they don’t realise how that affects them, because actually they’re already in there and therefore bursaries and fee raises don’t affect them. It’s very hard to make the link between Northumbria being successful in that, and linking it all the way back to NUS UK, to develop that workshop, taking it out and training people up and provide support.

We saved a grant called ‘Care To Learn’, which is a grant for young parents, teenage parents to go back into further education and primarily, unsurprisingly, they are for women, and that was going to be cut and we saved it. That’s millions of pounds saved for young mums but actually, in reality, again if you’re not a young mum, or even if you are, this wasn’t something that was picked up by the press because it wasn’t anything exciting that made the headlines, but this is huge.

The difficulty that we have is not necessarily that we aren’t representing or we’re not doing a good job; the difficulty is trying to link the wins that we make with the membership on the ground, and the NUS extra card is the first step in reaching out and communicating with them, but we do have to be better at doing that. Personally, I do a lot of course rep conferences, where I’ll go and I’ll talk to course reps and run sessions, and I’ll do speeches and whatever – this for me is the best way I’m able to talk to beyond sabbatical officers, beyond executives in Students’ Unions and go beyond that. I know Steph, you had a lot of non-sabbaticals at your summer training stuff right?

SL: For our Zone conference, we had more students there than we had officers from Students’ Unions, and for us that was brilliant. The thing is as well, if you look at the works we do with NUS Wales with further education, every single student governor in every college across Wales, and you have to look at the breadth of the work that we do and the amount of people that we work with, too. We may not always be able to get every single student on every single campus to know who I am (which I think is fine, it’d probably be a bit creepy), but the amount of work and time that goes into training people to be able to make, as Rachel said, that difference on their campus that results in that massive wins for their own students that their students have asked for.

RW: I can give you another example – I’m going to speak on a panel on technology and education. Now I know there’s only going to be a couple of sabbatical officers from Oxford Brookes going; it’s still worth me doing it, it’s worth my time even if it’s not member-facing because a lot of our work is towards the sector; the negotiations that led to NUS Wales winning on the funding and fees issue obviously were massively helped by membership and people in Wales campaigning, students really getting involved, but there’s also an area that’s really sector facing; lobbying, sitting down and having those difficult conversations is a part of our job as well (it’s very difficult always to try and reflect that back) but that also takes up a significant amount of our time.

GB: What do you both think of the campaign to elect Inanimate Carbon Rod? It currently has more Facebook likes (at over 1200) [as of 31st January] than any other candidate. What do you think this says?

RW: It’s difficult to comment on the campaign for the elections as I’m a candidate myself, but the difficulty that I have with it is, in my personal opinion, everything we’ve talked about so far… I find it quite upsetting that people don’t take it as seriously as I think it deserves, and at the end of the day, when you consider how important the relationship we have with the Government is, the sector and the students and the important role we have in training and campaigning and so on. I find it quite sad there are three candidates in the election, all with a completely different mission, across the political spectrum, but that’s not enough; people aren’t taking it seriously. I also worry, to be honest with you, we had an election last year with four candidates all across the political spectrum but they were all men. This is the first time in a hell of a long time – I’m thinking eight years? Where there’s two women in the election, the likelihood is that one of those women will win, and it’s this year there’s a parody candidate. I’m not accusing the makers of Inanimate Carbon Rod of misogyny, but it does worry me that the first time we’ve got women candidates, and the first time there’s the likelihood of one of them winning, this is the year that they’re being pulled apart by Inanimate Carbon Rod. I don’t know. It’s just a bit odd that’s all, I think.

SL: I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, and I do think there’s something about the fact that because it’s a parody… but the thing about it having more likes on Facebook, it’s there more for popularity and everything we do is irrelevant, it’s a dangerous conclusion to draw. I’m not suggesting you are, but I’ve seen people on social media draw that conclusion. Actually, a ‘like’ on Facebook, what does that really mean in the sense of, does that person really engage? I do agree with Rachel, it’s a laugh, it’ll be the best inanimate object in that election and it’ll all be fun but you can’t slam NUS on one hand for not engaging with students and taking ourselves too seriously, but at the same time, we’re not good enough for people and we don’t represent people and we don’t win for people. I think it’s an odd one and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. I’ll enjoy watching that from afar I think.

RW: I don’t know how it’ll be able to speak!

SL: I want to know if there’ll be an outfit… I’m looking forward to the something moreso than the speech, because rods can’t speak so…

RW: That’s a good point.

GB: When’s the next time NUS or NUS Wales will be coming to Aberystwyth?

SL: OK, so, I was meant to be coming tomorrow [1st Feb] but unfortunately I’ve had some bad news personally, and I’m going to have to go home, so I was meant to be there tomorrow but I’m going to have to rearrange that unfortunately. It will be certainly within the next month or so hopefully; we’re going to rearrange it as quickly as possible.

RW: I don’t really go to Unions unless I’m invited, so I go to an awful lot, but that’s only because of an invitation. I don’t know if that’s showing up to be productive; maybe I need to get in touch with the Aber SABBS, but I’m always open. I was in Northampton yesterday, I’ll be in Gloucester tomorrow, so wherever I get invited, I will go along to.

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Additional reporting: Kathryn Hill, Guy Drury