Alright, I confess it. I voted to remain in the NUS in that ill-fated referendum last term. Admittedly, I was mainly persuaded by the scare mongering propagated by the Yes campaign; I might lose my much loved and treasured McDonalds discount in the event of disaffiliation. Yet, the nobler part of me (one that rarely holds sway) was also attracted to the idea of being part of a national movement of students from across the country, fighting for their interests and for fairness in a world where there is little enough of it. However, this movement will only survive and flourish if its direction and agenda are decided by the students it purports to represent.The NUS cannot hijack the apathy of the vast majority of students to mount campaigns supported only by an outspoken minority.
For sure, many of the campaigns that the NUS mounts, such as fighting the tuition fee rise or increasing awareness of LGBTQ issues, are not only admirable ones, but also ones that the majority of students support. However, their latest shenanigans cannot be so labelled. They have proposed an “alcohol impact” scheme in which certain universities strive to fulfil a set of criteria. These include trying to get universities to limit commercial pub-crawls on campus and putting an end to “irresponsible drinks promotions”. In other words, they are trying to manage your alcohol intake for you. I am not saying that their entire proposal is a bad thing; the emphasis in the campaign on highlighting the provision of cheap non-alcoholic alternatives and the desire to develop a café culture are both sensible measures that will help to make those who don’t like to drink feel more included. Yet, the package as a whole is certainly not an uncontroversial one; the means to the end of abolishing the binge drinking culture, as laudable as that might be, potentially include increasing the price of student drinks and limiting the range of a student’s social activities.
I do not begrudge our universities, or even the Home Office, launching such a campaign; it is their right to try to make our society as safe and healthy as it can possible be. But for our own lobbying group to act against the interests of so many students is intolerable. They have no mandate for such a programme from the students they represent. It is certainly not a clear-cut issue. Further regulating the consumption of alcohol on student campuses could be seen as just driving binge drinking out of secure areas and into more dangerous ones. Students would increasingly turn to supermarket alcohol, making the safe havens that are student bars increasingly depopulated. This would damage the sense of community in universities, as the Student Union is often the social hub of the campus.
Why should all this concern us? After all, I am quibbling about a very small part of a campaign that is not even being implemented in Oxford. Seemingly the epitome of irrelevant. But such a view misses the point that in all this, the NUS is claiming to wield the overwhelming might of student opinion in fulfilling its ideological aims. Yet, as far as I am aware, no such consensus exists. The NUS is not the government; it cannot claim to be working for the benefit of its members contrary to their wishes. It is a movement representing a particular constituency and therefore should ONLY act when its constituency agrees with what its doing. It is at its best when it is fighting against tuition fees, bargaining for discounts for the NUS extra card or campaigning for the rights of disabled students. But at its worst, it is a meddling, undemocratic, sectarian institution that campaigns without the mandate of its members. Attempts to suppress the consumption of alcohol definitely fall into the latter category and it is with acts like these that the NUS shoots itself in the foot. In doing so, all it achieves is to damage its own credibility in the eyes of students across the country.