On 16th February, the University of Bath’s Debating Society hosted a debate in relation to the Bath Student Union’s upcoming referendum, concerning whether our SU should remain affiliated to the National Union of Students (NUS), or whether we would be better off saving money and going it alone.
At the moment, 95% of UK higher education unions are affiliated with the NUS, making it the largest representative body for students’ interests. In 2020, the NUS went through its biggest reforms in 50 years, enhancing transparency and bringing decision-making much closer to students. Currently, the membership fees cost our SU £30,000 per year, equivalent to 0.85% of the SU’s total turnover for 2021/22.
During the debate, pro-affiliation speakers emphasized that through the NUS, universities’ demands are unified, making campaigning more effective, giving numerous examples of successful collective NUS efforts such as the recent ‘#DecoloniseEducation’ campaign. The NUS also helped our SU to lobby for rent rebates for 1st year students to be extended until 8th March. They assisted with negotiating mass Covid testing during the Christmas holidays and lobbied for the establishment of a no-detriment policy in 28 universities, and set up the ‘Students Deserve Better’ campaign to help those who have been mistreated and neglected during the pandemic. The NUS has also been a strong advocate for the more than half a million international students currently studying in the UK, taking action in 2019 against the Home Office for revoking international student visas. In light of this, the pro-affiliation speakers stressed that our NUS affiliation is vital, particularly during the pandemic.
However, anti-affiliation speakers raised the question: ‘How can one voice represent roughly 2.38 million students?’ Would universities be more receptive to campaigns if it came from their own students? The proponents highlighted that much of the work done for students during the pandemic had emerged at the local level. Many universities started their own campaigns to decolonize the curriculum and provide rent rebates for first years, while the NUS’ campaign to secure the early release of tenancies for all students has not yet materialized.
Opposition was also expressed towards NUS bureaucracy, with claims that structural issues within the NUS have potentially acted as a barrier to student engagement in politics. Furthermore, the representation provided by NUS was argued to not accurately portray the needs of students, with many students often not knowing their national representatives, suggesting that representation by local students would enhance the credibility of university campaigns.
It was also pointed out that the SUs of non-affiliated universities such as Surrey, Imperial College London and Loughborough have been very effective at advocating for their students on their own terms – Surrey, for example, established rent rebates alongside a no-detriment policy, proving that it is possible to get things “pushed through” without support from the NUS. Additionally, even if the SU disaffiliates from the NUS, SU officers can still get support through alternative national platforms such as WonkHE while the NUS Charity would also provide some essential services to our SU for just £7,500 a year. The extra funding gained from disaffiliation from the NUS could therefore allow for our SU to enhance student experience through increased funding of societies, reforming buildings, and could also be put towards solving the SU deficit of £213,000. However, pro-affiliation speakers argued that the £30,000 NUS membership fee is insignificant compared to the SU’s total budget, and that the benefits outweigh the costs.
What do you think is the best course of action? Polling opens on Thursday 25th February, so make your voice heard!