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Say Yes to NUS: The Case for Remaining Within the National Union of Students

The following article is written by Chloe Field, the NUS VP for higher education.

Students created students’ unions to harness local collective power, and a national union to build national collective action. 101 years ago, Oxford students’ union met with 16 other students’ unions a small dusty room in London to found NUS and it has been integral to shaping the national student voice ever since. Many of our student leaders have come from Oxford, with three former NUS Presidents hailing from the university. I and my NUS colleagues are sad whenever a student body contemplates leaving our union, but Oxford’s storied place in the creation of NUS means you would be especially missed.

The student movement is a powerful force for good and I am incredibly proud to lead NUS in its 101st year. But I can assure you it is not without its challenges, and these may lead some to question the value of a national union. I will address these and the lessons we have learned below, but first allow me to explain why a strong bond between Oxford Students’ Union and NUS is vital to the health of the whole movement. 

Our first President, Ivison Macadam, was an ex-serviceman, whose experiences of the trenches of World War 1 inspired his desire to campaign for a better future for all. Indeed, in a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he said, “If students are co-operating today surely there is hope for tomorrow.”

Macadam’s optimism embodies both students’ unions and our national union. NUS serves as the national representative body for students and the collective power it gives us is incredibly powerful. This is especially true when times are hard, and no one would doubt that they are now. The need to work together to protect the most vulnerable amongst us and to speak out for ourselves and our fellow students has never been more urgent.

Being a member of NUS is all about collectivism. We are stronger working together than when acting alone. The past few years have shown us the value of our united voice. In the face of the pandemic, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, the student mental health crisis which is in part a result of these, and a continued lack of support from the government, students have suffered, and are suffering, like never before. Many are being pushed to the brink.

But I can assure you NUS is tireless in its efforts to fight for students. In the last year alone, we have won £15 million to support students in the cost-of-living crisis; new legal protections for student renters; £3 million of funding to tackle student mental health in England; we’ve persuaded the Welsh government to increase the maintenance loan by 9.4%; and we’ve got 80 universities to end the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to silence victims of sexual violence, including 3 Oxford colleges. Just this week the government announced further plans to stamp out the sexual harassment and misconduct that plagues our campuses, with policies we’ve been campaigning for since 2010, long before anyone else was willing to talk about it.  

Our current cost-of-living campaign is fighting to increase financial support for students, and we’re campaigning for cheaper student housing, free transport, and well-paid, secure jobs.  We can succeed, as our past triumphs show. During Covid we secured £800 million for students, through campaigns for rent refunds and student support. For Oxford students, this delivered £152,273 in hardship funds. The extra £15 million in hardship funding we won this year is bringing £26,878 to students at Oxford. ‘That last sum alone is more than what Oxford SU pays to be in NUS – and that is just one of many wins so far this year. The financial return on what you put into NUS is never in question – it is undeniably strong every single year. But staying in your national union is worth so much more. Just look back at our history and the contribution we have made to students and to wider society.

  • We developed the original student discount card (NUS card, now Totum) and the ISIC card (the international version) securing discounts for students wherever they go and making student life more affordable for all. 
  • Student railcards were introduced thanks to our campaigning and then we went further and ensured those aged 16 to 17 could benefit from them too. 
  • When no one else would insure students, we did, establishing Endsleigh Insurance to cater to student need. 
  • NUS is the reason students don’t pay Council Tax.
  • We persuaded banks to offer postgraduate loans and then got them to remove the age caps. 
  • NUS Scotland got tuition fees abolished for undergraduates in Scotland, something NUS UK is planning to make central to our campaign for the coming General Election. 
  • We were early adopters of Fairtrade products, creating the first mass market for them, and it’s no exaggeration to say this fuelled the mainstream demand we see today. 
  • NUS has been at the forefront of campaigns for equality, leading the charge on trans rights, and the current campaigns on the Gender Recognition Bill in Scotland.

Of course, we cannot, and should not, talk about equality without recognising the pain felt by Jewish students as has been clearly identified in NUS’ independent investigation into antisemitism. The Tuck Report is a disturbing account of antisemitism within NUS and our movement more broadly. It is a truly difficult read but I welcome the clarity it brings to enable us to act with confidence to tackle antisemitism head on. I offer my unreserved apology to Jewish students for the harm caused and assure you that NUS is committed to ensuring that Jewish students feel safe and welcome in every corner of our movement for the long term. 

Antisemitism is anathema to our core values, which is why we have accepted the report’s recommendations in their entirety and published an action plan for tackling antisemitism, which includes specific actions and deadlines for implementation and are currently putting together an Advisory Panel to oversee it. I, and everyone in NUS, are clear that our task is to kick antisemitism out of student politics for good.

Jewish students should never be expected to carry the burden of delivering change alone. We believe this is a defining moment for NUS, students’ unions and the whole student movement and it is for this reason we have published the full Tuck Report, unredacted, and our action plan, online to bring transparency, accountability, and the opportunity to learn and become a movement we can all feel pride and belonging in. 

I believe the arguments for Oxford saying Yes to NUS are compelling. We are an organisation that has owned its failings and confronted them head on. We deliver win after win that brings a material benefit to students lives and are a powerful advocate for their rights. We champion the work of student leaders, whether in students’ unions, JCRs, clubs or societies. We are proud of the brave and ambitious work that students do, day in day out, to build our better future and we defend them to the hilt, an attack on one is an attack on all. We fundamentally believe in the transformative potential of education and the capacity for change, across campuses and in our own house. We speak truth to power, representing the student body to government and national decision makers. Leaving NUS would deprive Oxford students of connection and the benefits of a collective body of seven million students and 400 students’ unions. But equally, and no less importantly, it would deprive the wider student movement of the powerhouse that is Oxford students.

At a time when higher education faces significant challenges, it is vital students work together and support each other across our differences. Oxford’s departure from NUS would fragment the movement, precisely when, with a general election looming, we have everything to win by uniting. I urge you to vote to remain a member of NUS and continue to work as part of the national student voice in pursuit of a more equitable and just education system and society. 

For the material value.

For the national voice.

For you and your rights.

For your fellow students and their rights.

For better education for everyone.

For a stronger and fairer society. 

And for the generations who come after you.

Say Yes to NUS.

Voting in the referendum is open between 08:00 on Monday 27th February and 18:00 on Wednesday 1st of March, and votes can be cast via the Oxford SU website.

Image Credit: Marco Verch CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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