In the absence of any significant media coverage, and any substantial student support, was this really a suitable way of spending the student funds that the NUS themselves claims are becoming sparser and sparser?
If any of you follow the National Union of Students in the way I do (which is primarily to check when they will next embroil themselves in a scandal), you may have noted their announcing of a “national student demo” a few months back. The announcement was accompanied with criticism from many; despite having no clear objectives, and a vague tagline of “United for Education”, the organisation had already budgeted £60,000 of student funds for the event. An elaborate spread of money-orientated risk assessments estimated that the figure could in fact reach £100,000. These risk-assessments also raised concerns such as the risk of students scrapping their NUS cards, if the demo had too strong and “violent” a message (obviously explaining the lack of clarity in what they were protesting about). In typical NUS fashion, preliminary planning also gave provision for various “safe spaces” alongside the demo, as well as passing the judgement that non-EU international students were “too vulnerable” to take part.
Well, this “demo” happened on Saturday, November 19th. Despite being aware of the date, amongst my various weekend plans, the event completely slipped my mind. Scrolling through news sites over the weekend, one would have expected that I would come across a report on this demo, which had such big projected expenditure. Yet no news report appeared, and since the event, no real traction has occurred in the media at all. Apart from the smiling selfies of NUS officers taken in front of the gates of parliament, one could be forgiven for thinking that the event didn’t occur after all.
From looking at the few publications that bothered to cover the event, it would seem that the NUS did manage to tighten their message somewhat. The Higher Education Bill – which passed through parliament on Monday (with no consideration given to Saturday’s events) – seemed to be of a concern to the demonstrators. However, I stress that they “somewhat” tightened their message. From observing photographs of placards at the demo, as well as reading over the NUS’s aims, it seemed that the event was mainly a smorgasbord of left-wing taglines and political concerns. Signs brandishing slogans such as “Refugees welcome”, “No to racism, no to Trump” and “Cut war not welfare” actually seemed to surpass any that made reference to the HE Bill. While I do not take issue with these messages, I have to question; was this really the right place to be brandishing them? Should such concerns, which certainly fall outside of the NUS’s mandate and protocol, be up for discussion at an event protesting changes to higher education?
When a student such as myself looks at the rising cost of living, do you think we are really concerned about who became the president elect of the United States, thousands of miles away?
It further cemented the impression that the demo was nothing more than a vanity project for NUS officials, so that they could take selfies with their colourful placards in a bid to prove that they are “doing good”. The usual virtue signalling was well in force, and the NUS clearly continues to fall under the illusion that they have the power to influence issues outside of their control. The event clearly lacked organisation, a coherent message and, as a result, failed to resonate with the majority of students.
This is the second problem that the demo highlighted. It served as a worrying reminder that the NUS fails to connect with the 7 million students across the United Kingdom, whom it claims to be a representative of. The Union states that 15,000 people turned up to the march (though photographs, and accounts I have heard from people who passed by the demo while in London, would suggest that the figure was indeed lower). Yet not all of these 15,000 were students, as lecturers and union officials also took part in the march. At the most therefore, around 0.25% of students nationwide took part in this march. This is unsurprising, when the NUS fosters a system in which student engagement remains limited to a few. By working on a system of delegates in elections rather than one member, one vote, the NUS can never be fully representative. The NUS officials and their delegate supporters may have had a fun day out in London, and a top night at the Goldsmith’s Student Union after party, but that did not justify the £60,000 price tag for organising this damp squib.
£60,000 is an unjustifiable amount of student money spent on an event that failed to bring any attention to the concerns facing ordinary students, and failed to have any impact on policy affecting students. What’s more, in an era when the NUS continually claims that student funds are becoming sparser and sparser, how were they able to collect such a large figure for this event? If the NUS has access to these funds, why are they not ensuring it goes to the students that need them the most? Maybe use the money to pay for the tuition fees of a handful of students who come the poorest backgrounds? Or, rather, help pay for medical care of those students with serious medical issues?
As Haydar Zaki of Right-to-Debate rightly remarked: “an activist would take £60,000 and use it to help the people that needed it most. An “SJW” would take £60,000 and set up a huge vanity event to promote what good people they are.”
If the NUS is going to spend this money on a demo, we would at least want it to grab media and political attention. NUS officials have assured me just this year that they “go down the corridors of Westminster, to hold politicians to account when making policy that affects students.” I have my doubts about such a claim to begin with, in the absence of any real evidence of the National Union of Students affecting policy change. However, the very fact the NUS was so keen to have this demo in the first place makes them little more than an outsider pressure group – not a serious body that has an influence on policy.
Writer and editor for Conatus News, and contributor to various other publications. Student at University of Birmingham and recovering member of the Labour Party and student politics.