A question and answer session was held last night in Dunelm House to discuss whether or not Durham should leave the NUS. Two students, Oscar Rocklin and Felicity Juckes, spoke in favour of disaffiliation, while Union president Millie Tanner and the NUS vice-president for union development, Richard Brooks, were opposed.
Before the debate began a report from Dianne Sharp, the interim Union CEO, was circulated. It estimated that the DurhamSU stood to lose £20,000 a year if they left the NUS. The major part of this was loss of income from “commercial sales” minus the affiliation fee, although details deemed to be “commercially sensitive” were omitted.
Mr Rocklin was the first to speak. He stressed that the issues with the NUS were not simply confined to the current leadership, but that the “problems are much more deep-rooted”. He criticised NUS involvement in foreign policy and a recent motion that appears to call for the abolition of prisons, which he considers distracts them from issues which affect students more directly. Ms Juckes agreed, saying that the NUS was “completely out of touch with students”.
In reply, Richard Brooks pointed out that about 96% of SUs are affiliated, and claimed that the NUS had won several victories for students, such as the 16-25 railcard and the fact that we don’t have to pay council tax. He admitted that within the NUS there are “plenty of things I don’t agree with”, but urged students to “get involved” if they want change.
He also drew attention to the support, including legal advice, which the NUS gives to individual students’ unions. Ms Tanner backed him up, pointing to help that they had given the DurhamSU on alcohol and sexual violence campaigns, as well as a “huge amount of support” on accommodation fees. She argued that there is no viable alternative to affiliation, and urged voters to “make an informed decision”.
After the opening addresses, the speakers were asked questions that had been submitted in advance by students. Those in favour of leaving attempted to allay fears that there was no opportunity to influence government outside the NUS, saying that “multiple, well established universities have had no trouble”. Millie Tanner disagreed, saying that the “government will not listen to 400 different unions”, just as the university would not listen to sixteen different common rooms.
When asked how disaffiliation would affect the DurhamSU, the advocates of leaving expressed hope that student politics would be more attractive and accountable, saying that the NUS had become a “tainted voice”. Millie Tanner said that her “job would have been 10-100 times harder” without the national union, and emphasised that Durham is not bound by NUS policy, with particular reference to the no platforming policy. She also pointed to the advantages of NUS Extra Cards, comparing them favourably with similar discounts that are on offer. Meanwhile Richard Brooks promised a “national voice for Durham students”, and a “big change in the NUS”.
In response to the question, “Is disaffiliation better than reforming?” Mr. Brooks explained that a major reason why he had run for NUS VP was to reform NUS democracy, and pointed to an ongoing review of NUS democracy, which started before this years’ controversial conference in Brighton. He questioned claims that the NUS is fundamentally undemocratic, implying that they were rooted more in results that critics dislike than in the actual voting structure. However, Ms Juckes argued that “disaffiliation guarantees reform and change” and Mr Rocklin urged voters to make a “statement of intent”.
There were then questions from the floor. The first of these focused on the NUS’s support for liberation campaigns, with the questioner saying that she “wouldn’t have had any support” for her campaign on transgender rights. Mr Rocklin responded by claiming that such groups “would not lose oxygen” in the event of a disaffiliation vote, and Ms Juckes stressed that the NUS does not have a monopoly on advocating equality.
On the government’s recent higher education white paper, Mr. Brooks argued that the NUS “made a massive impact” on how the bill eventually looked, while Mr. Rocklin pointed out that the “NUS is often unsuccessful” in their campaigns, and argued that they made themselves easy targets for critics and undermined their credibility with their ventures into foreign policy and other areas. The NUS VP replied that the “vast majority” of their work was directly relevant to the student body, but accepted that there are “problems with how we communicate”.
There was then a brief discussion on the impact of disaffiliation on the prices at college bars. Being part of the NUS appears to keep these prices down, although if Durham leaves it could join another “consortium” which would have a similar, though probably lesser, effect, with potentially large increases in the prices of soft drinks in particular. It was pointed out that St. Chad’s bar does not benefit from the current arrangements, but nevertheless does not charge noticeably higher prices. However, Chad’s bar staff are volunteers.
Ms Tanner concluded by asking the audience to read beyond the headlines of negative press coverage of the NUS and said that we are “stronger when we are part of a national union”. Mr Rocklin emphasised the current feeling of alienation from student politics of a large part of the student body.
Referendum voting opened this morning at 8 o’clock, and closes on Friday at 5pm.