Nick Pringle, Arun Mehta and Becky Montacute argue for and against the inanimate carbon rod
Against – Nick Pringle, Manchester Student Union’s General Secretary
In a few months time I’ll be going to NUS National Conference along with 10 others to represent students from The University of Manchester, and I’ll not be voting for any joke candidates. Next year’s president is likely to be a woman for the first time in a long time (and she may also be from further education) yet all anybody is talking about is some guy who is making Simpsons jokes.
You might not think it, but the NUS is actually quite important. Before Christmas when a student submitted an idea to an assembly to get Manchester SU to disaffiliate, students at the assembly voted overwhelmingly to remain in the national union. NUS’s impact affects not only students here in Manchester but nationally as our elected officers work for students in government meetings every day. Cameron and his mates are pretty hard to work with as it is; I doubt some guy with a carbon rod is going to be any use in fighting to put money back into students pockets, or for fair access to education, for affordable housing or rigorous measures of quality in our universities. This candidate is a joke and anybody voting for the rod is too.
This year’s National President commissioned the largest ever piece of research into student finance in the UK – Pound in Your Pocket. With this information student officers like myself and the rest of the Manchester Exec Team up and down the country are now convincing their colleges and universities that students need more generous bursaries, cheaper courses and that institutions need to be paying far greater attention to student finances. Could an inanimate carbon rod commission such an important piece of research which would have a genuine impact on the lives of millions of students? I think not.
Postgraduate fees are steadily climbing at universities across the UK. There are no loans, not enough bursaries and a national crisis is looming. What NUS needs now is a President to take on the government over this issue before it’s too late. Do you want to do a masters when you graduate? Have you started looking at graduate schemes yet and realised how advantageous it would be if you had an MA after your name instead of a BA? Change doesn’t come from inanimate objects; it comes from passionate and pragmatic individuals with values and skills to create real change for students.
Anybody campaigning for “the rod” at NUS is undermining the work that NUS does, saying it could be done by an object from a cartoon. What we should really be talking about in this debate is what we want from our NUS, what sort of a future do we want our national union to be fighting for? There are some amazingly talented and passionate people running for the full time positions of NUS and to support an inanimate object is an insult to their hard work and delegitimizes the organisation as a whole. You may not think it, but people do pay attention to the NUS.
But the NUS isn’t perfect, and anybody who says so is deluded. There are a lot of ways the NUS can improve and become more relevant to students and less inward facing, and it’s getting better every year. I’ve been to more NUS events than I care to remember, and I’ve seen the change as the organisation has stopped talking about itself and started talking about students. About real issues, and about things that affect all of us up and down the country.
NUS elections aren’t perfect either, and there are a few small things which could be done to improve them, but I’m yet to hear a better overall option for electing our national representatives. Delegates elected from every SU who go to conference get to see, hear and meet all the candidates and grill them on the issues that are relevant to students before voting on for them. Candidates have to work hard for their votes, to get their message out and work for weeks in advance of conference itself to be successful. It’s a rightfully rigorous process which gives the necessary scrutiny to ensure the highest calibre of candidates.
Should more students get involved in delegate elections on campus? Yes. Should more students get involved in the motions which are discussed at conference and the decisions that NUS makes? Yes. Should candidates for election have to reach out to more students and students unions? Yes.
Some people believe that every one of the 7 million student members of the NUS should get a vote in electing the national President and Vice Presidents. Do I think that? No. It’s already expensive enough for candidates without having to travel up and down the UK to meet 7 million voters, to build a campaign team on every campus and to get their message across. I know I’d rather see NUS spending money on lobbying, campaigning and empowering students to create real change.
To put the “One Member One Vote” idea into context, the total pool of voters would be larger than all of the people who can vote for the Mayor of London, or the total number of people who voted in the last Belgian Parliamentary elections.
So will I be voting for the carbon rod? No, of course not!
For – Arun Mehta, Computer Science postgraduate student
ManchesterSU should back the inanimate carbon rod for the presidency of the NUS. How many of the NUS presidential candidates do you know that won a worker’s safety ward at Springfield nuclear plant, flew into space with the legendary Buzz Aldrin and returned an American hero after jamming itself into the broken door lock of the space shuttle? But seriously, let’s face it, over recent years, the NUS has been largely irrelevant and unhelpful to students like you and me.
When I first started university in 2008, the hottest topic in the student community was anti-war, Israel/Palestine and various other important issues facing the world that the student body were passionate to talk about. I agreed with some, I disagreed with others but the national student discussion then was exciting. Sadly nowadays, these issues are confined and narrowed down only to the societies, the passive public forums and the occasional bake sale I see while I’m strolling down Oxford Road. Please don’t tell me about the constantly failing anti-tuition fee campaigns if you’re an undergraduate. You’re still paying £9k a year! Since then, rightly or wrongly, a sort of university nationalism has gripped the NUS over recent years. This has pushed these major issues aside, favouring the rhetoric of tinkering with the university clockwork rather than being the voice of change. However, this conversion of student political trends has left many students, like myself, disillusioned from student politics and has pushed them out of the big NUS discussion
Sen Ganesh was President of Imperial College Union in 2002, back then he said, “The NUS’s claim to be representative of students is not borne out by their work. The NUS is dominated by Labour students and this diminishes the ability to address student issues in an impartial fashion.” Those words still speak volumes when discussing the nature of the NUS today, with its political relationship with Mr Ed Milliband’s team. The NUS currently holds a reputation by some as being the springboard to a job within the Labour Party ranks. Such as the Labour MP Jack Straw, or former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
Some will say this is now all in the past, that the NUS has moved on, but what about the fairly recent NUS president Aaron Porter? Wasn’t he a delightful character? After his time as president, Mr Porter ended up as a contributor for Labour’s education policy. Though to be fair, Porter is now an Education Consultant for Aaron Ross Porter Consultancy Ltd. He charges universities £125 an hour, and administers 10 day courses costing around £8500.
During the dying days of my studentship here in Manchester, the NUS had become an afterthought. Its relevancy shot and its existence largely forgotten. I urge Manchester SU’s delegates to back the inanimate carbon rod for president, because this inanimate object is probably a more suitable candidate then the humans running for this worn out, rusty Labour trampoline.
For – Becky Montacute, Mancunion Comment and Politics co-editor
Student politics today doesn’t talk about what students care about most. The NUS campaign for undergraduate fees but practically ignore the postgraduate fees and loans system, which is in much greater need for reform. It also pushes unpopular policies such as ‘no platform for fascists’, which closes down debate within universities, and has been disobeyed up and down the country by SUs wanting to encourage free speech (for instance, Leeds student paper not backing down on its decision to publish an interview with Nick Griffin).
The way that NUS president is elected currently doesn’t engage students in the election process. NUS delegates are elected at each institution, these delegates then go on to represent our SU and vote for president. Students are not engaged in these elections, and they typically have a very low turnout. Many students simply don’t understand this overly complicated system to elect the president, and so don’t vote. It also makes NUS president seem like a distant, far removed institution that they themselves have no hope of changing.
This leads to the same clique getting elected, the kind of people typically seen in student politics. Mostly left wing, mostly in support of policies such as ‘no platform for fascists’, but not the same as the average student. They are the people who stand as NUS delegates, who vote for one another. The average student then doesn’t vote, thinking all the candidates are the same, and the cycle continues. This doesn’t engage students. If each presidential candidate had to have a national campaign to win votes, they would have to actually talk to students about their policies. If they support unpopular policies, they won’t get elected. To say the cost of this is too great, the scale of the election too large, implies that the work the NUS does is not important enough to be worth doing properly. Voting for the rod is a protest against this system, against all the candidates having the same policies. Because right now, they just don’t face the pressure needed for change from their student electorate.