I thought I left student government back in high school, but it seems not completely so. This past week I attended the National Union of Students (NUS) conference in Brighton. As someone who is not particularly involved in our students union (LUSU) it was a headfirst dive into UK student government.
I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I have attended enough conferences to feel prepared for the most part. And one of the first things I realized was that Girls State and Girls Nation have made any sort of event that discusses policy and uses parliamentary procedure so much easier. Amendments, parts, motions, its all easy to follow if you spend enough time practicing government. The second thing that I realized is that when they say “Union” they mean it in the workers union way that in the US we wouldn’t. Sometimes I forget that the ‘liberal’ side of the UK is farther left than anything in the US. It was interesting to watch how politics (not just student politics) impacted the discourse of the event and the actions that the NUS takes.
One of the, in my opinion odd, things that UK Student Unions do is instead of students holding the officer positions, the position is a full time job held by students taking a year off of their degree, or after they graduate. While some offices are held by ‘part-time officers’ the major ones, i.e. President, and the VP’s of various areas, are ‘Full Time Officers’ or FTOs. This of course applies to the NUS national officers, many of whom are years out of university. This led to one of the main arguments that rose up over the course of the conference and will be fought over in what is turning into a major division of universities and unions across the country. Students feel that the NUS is not representing them well, as its political, its leaders are detached from the reality of students, and students have little influence on the issues the NUS takes up over the year. With a number of Student Unions (SU’s) and student groups calling to split from the NUS, it will be interesting in the coming weeks and months to see if the division between local unions and the national body grows, or dies off as students get caught in the rush of exams and end of term. That itself may be a key argument behind staying in the NUS, and a major point behind FTOs.
What was probably the major point of division in the conference was the election of a new president, which seemingly tore the organization apart. Malia Bouattia, the president-elect and first Black Muslim president of the organization became a divisive figure in a storm of accusations of anti-Semitism, the usual racism and islamaphobia, and her more extreme approach than current president and main opponent, Megan Dunn. Going into the conference with no background knowledge of either candidate, the media and discussion around the candidates was overwhelming, and difficult to sort. And as much as SU’s threat to leave may tear the NUS apart, it seems just as likely that internal division between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ factions may be the bigger threat to the organization.
The highlight of the conference was the success of a motion for a full time Trans office and an autonomous Trans campaign to better support students across the country who have been under represented in not just major campaigns, but with the LGBTQ+ liberation campaign. The motion passed in a nearly unanimous vote, an amazing moment of unity in a conference that had felt divided and tense from the beginning.
Though I plan to stay fairly un-involved in Student Politics, the conference was definitely an incredible learning experience. It highlighted a couple of major things for me. 1) Our student body is so disconnected from bigger issues and campaigns. Despite the response from so many other university’s students about being connected to the NUS, I think we got maybe one tweet about it? 2) We spend time bemoaning “LUSU” with no understanding of the structure, or what we mean. 3) UK politics will forever confuse me, and I have no desire to get involved. And 4) Brighton is really pretty.