‘Day Two’ of the NUS National Conference 2016 in Brighton might clarify things further, but ‘Day One’ of the largest democratic meeting of students in the world greatly mirrored the anti-establishment mood in world politics from start to finish.
Traditionally, the introductory remarks at NUS National Conferences are given by a spokesman from a student union situated in the host city. However, in an unprecedented move, Karolina Peitkiewicz of the European Students’ Union opened proceedings. By reminding the 800 delegates and 300 observers present of ABBA’s famous Eurovision Song Contest victory in Brighton, she first sought to evoke the internationalism of the NUS movement. Peitkiewicz might have also noted that there should always be the ‘aim for a better democratic society’, but her comments that ‘students are counting on you [delegates] to stand up for their rights’, clearly hinted at support for a ‘Remain’ campaign in a manner that wouldn’t conform to the views of the Westminster elite.
In a keynote speech following Peitkiewicz’s, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), not only offered solidarity to student activists, but also went on the offensive. Attacking the government’s Trade Union Bill that the TUC claims ‘threatens the basic right to strike’, she rousingly promised delegates that ‘the harder the government hits us, the harder we will fight back’. Having alluded to the revelations from the ‘Panama Papers’ earlier this month, O’Grady accused the government of hypocrisy for calling for greater union transparency. Yet, as with Peitkiewicz, it was populist arguments – O’Grady said, ‘It’s crucial they make their [students] voices heard during the EU referendum, when jobs, growth and rights at work will be at stake’ – that really invigorated those on the conference floor. June Sarpong, TV presenter and ‘Stronger IN’ board member, later in the day reiterated this theme: ‘Young people have more to lose with a vote to leave – and more to gain from staying – than any of us. Their voices and views must be heard’.
After pronouncing her support for an ‘EU [that] advances and protects the values that Britain’s young people believe in and is a force for tolerance and respect’, Megan Dunn, at least National President of the NUS until later this afternoon, formally opened the conference that she suggested, in 2015, had had an ‘atmosphere that was beyond tense’. Looking to quell such overly-aggressive debate, Dunn had earlier argued that the ‘worst offence of all would be to descend into internal conflict’ at a time when ‘too many students are being failed’ and the ‘NUS was under threat and under siege’.
The main task of delegates, to vote for or vote down motions brought to conference, was now at hand. Progress was initially slow. Although allocated a two and half hour session to discuss motions related to education, only six were considered; it was thus disappointing that politically opportunistic procedural motions were continuously raised, killing valuable time spent deliberating key issues such as ‘name-blind’ UCAS admissions.
Undoubtedly the most controversial moment of that session came when an amendment (201b) was debated asking the NUS ‘to mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the National Student Survey if the government’s new Higher Education (HE) reforms and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are not withdrawn.’ With opinion almost evenly split along the lines of two different ‘slates’ (essentially parties) of Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates elected on ‘Day Two’, the motion was eventually passed. The fact that amendment 201e also passed – which called the NUS ‘to actively campaign in collaboration with education trade unions’ – summed up a day where NUS delegates wanted to fight back against the government.
Yet, as with any issue related to censorship, Motion 303 will likely stoke the most controversy in Durham. The conference resolved to request the NUS to ‘open a dialog with Facebook, Twitter, and YikYak to introduce restrictions on ‘anonymous’ or troll accounts during elections periods’, a move that has set the stage up for more fiery debates on ‘Day Two’ of the NUS National Conference 2016.