With Essex’s second NUS Referendum just around the corner, Tom Hunter and Elise Kumm try to lay out what we currently know.
Almost a whole year has passed since Essex held its referendum on whether or not the Students’ Union should remain an affiliated member of the National Union of Students – and the result of that vote, was a marginal ‘Yes’.
After a flurry of referenda were held at different universities nationwide, a total of 1028 Essex students voted, and with 46.6% voting ‘Leave’ and 56.6% voting ‘Remain’, we opted to stay with the NUS.
Now, once again, we find ourselves confronted with the same question, after a petition of 75 student signatures was submitted to the SU last term, to trigger another referendum. Champions of the Leave campaign argue that circumstances have changed, and the deal students voted on last year, isn’t the same deal we have now – namely, the hike in our membership fee from £41,240 in 2015/16 to over £50,000 this year.
According to Josh Gulrajani, Essex VP Education and key figure in the Leave campaign, NUS “promised to be more engaged,” after last year’s referendum, but have in fact “done even less.”
“A number of this year’s SU Executive Committee started the year extremely sceptical of NUS and what it stood for,” Josh told Rebel. “However, in the interests of Essex students, they put their personal concerns to one side to engage with NUS as far as possible. What we saw led to an Executive Stance of urging a vote of Leave – do I need to say anymore?”
But with the NUS Conference, and the election of a new National Executive Committee taking place this week, do Leave campaigners not feel it’s worth waiting to see what direction the new NUS leadership take the organisation in?
“It is true that some of this year’s Officer Candidates have promising manifestos, that have the ability to salvage this absurd organisation. However, we believe that the direction NUS has been heading in for a while mean that it is now too far gone for one individual or even a team of individuals to fix.”
Last term, Rebel sat down with NUS VP Union Development, Richard Brooks, for a one-to-one interview, in which we asked “What is the NUS, and what exactly does it do?” You can listen to his remarks in the short video below.
Brooks says the job of NUS is split into three main parts: “One is the lobbying and influencing bit,” in which NUS will be “in the room influencing and negotiating” around any legislation that effects students. Campaigners from the Leave campaign have contested some of these lobbying ‘wins’ the NUS has taken credit for in the past – namely, housing administration fees, student rent, and tuition fee rises and their connection to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – which it says have either had nothing to do with NUS, not been resolved, or have been down to individual students’ unions, such as ours.
The second aspect of the organisation, he says, is union development. “That’s everything from legal advice, training, support, resources like data research… Networking, collaboration, bringing people together… So anything that makes students’ unions good.” Again, the Essex Leaves NUS group has refuted some of Brooks’ claims, citing the data research and resources aspects in particular, noting that Essex have recently had to conduct their own research around student mental health, “as NUS’ was so out of date.”
It is true that the last full report on student mental wellbeing from the NUS was published in December 2015, over a year ago, for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students – but it’s also worth noting that the research in that report alone took around 12 months to compile. A quick glance at the publications the NUS provide on their website shows a swathe of research conducted by the organisation across a range of student issues, but Leave campaigners are correct when they say that their most recent research was published in 2016.
The final element of the organisation, says Brooks, “is the enterprise bit, which in a nutshell is: saving students’ money.” He says this is done through perks, resources, the NUS Extra cards, and their online platform. But with Essex having left both the purchasing consortium and the NUS online platform in 2012, these aren’t perks Brooks can claim Essex students reap the benefit of.
By now, many students will have seen the poster above, or ones just like it, plastered across campus and social media – and would be forgiven for thinking it’s oddly reminiscent of the Brexit bus. But a Leave campaign spokesperson made a point of telling us they aren’t promising this is where our £50,000 will be spent if we leave, just that it’s something we could potentially be spending that money on.
Regardless, it’s clear our NUS membership has both perks and drawbacks; being a part of a union allows us to be part of national campaign efforts for student issues, but then again the NUS have been known to take stances on non-student issues in recent times. And leaving will give us control of the allocation of at least £50,000 each year, instead of paying it to the NUS, but as we’ve seen, some of that money goes into national research, whilst some students also benefit from the resources it provides. Either way, it will be up to Essex students to decide if the pros outweigh the cons, or vice versa.
As some of you may recall, in the run-up to last year’s NUS Referendum, Rebel released an explainer video to help students understand exactly what was going on, before they cast their vote. Well this year we dragged out the footage, and dusted it off to give you a general run-down of the information (note: some statistics are from 2015/16). If you’re still unsure, take a look:
And don’t forget, voting opens at 10am on Thursday 27th April, and closes at 5pm on Friday 28th April. You can read the cases for Remain and Leave here.
Disclaimer: At the time of publishing no formal Remain campaign has been established, and Rebel reached out to Remain supporters for comment, but received no response. Rebel has chosen to take a neutral position on the upcoming referendum. We strive to cover the events of the vote without bias for either campaign.