NUS national conference 2013 was my first time at an NUS conference. Overall, I found it an incredibly positive experience; in fact the more I think about it the more I feel invigorated and excited about the student movement and proud to be a part of it.
From working on a better alternative to EMA to raising awareness about mental health to increasing student voter turnout in elections to fighting for proper careers education in schools and against the reforms to GCSEs and A levels, some really excellent motions passed. The quality of the discourse was really high and there were some fantastic speeches from delegates. I really enjoyed the zone reports, which reminded me that for all its faults NUS does some incredible work, and I think the motions we passed at conference put NUS on course to continue doing great work, research and campaigning that helps students on a day to day level.
My biggest disappointment of the conference was that motion 701 fell. I understand all the issues with gender quotas, and I honestly wish we didn’t need them, but we do. Even mainstream political parties use them…even the Tory party uses them! NUS should stop fantasising that all we need to do is encourage more women to get involved. Frankly, it was really patronising to hear delegates stand up and say that delegates should be elected “on merit”. The fact that only about 30% of delegates to conference are, on average, women, despite women making up the majority of students is not because of merit, it’s because of our societal structures which disadvantages woman. I’m angry that a floor made up of mostly men voted against this motion, but I’m also angry at the women who voted against. To get elected as a woman is awesome, but it doesn’t mean you can leave other women behind. The main losers from this motion falling were the women who should have been at conference but, because of the way of society is structured, weren’t. Oh, and to all the delegates who didn’t get out of bed in time to vote for the motion; what the hell?!
In better women related news, I’m thrilled NUS elected a woman as its president (and also thrilled her main opponent was a woman…go women!). Toni Pearce is quite simply fantastic in every way, and will be an incredible president. That she is NUS’s first president from FE is as wonderful as it is shocking; the majority of NUS’s membership is FE students, and it shouldn’t have taken us this long to get here. But at least we have now. The number of FE delegates at this conference (many of whom I had the pleasure of hanging out with) is a tribute to the work Toni and Vice Presidents have done before her to engage FE students with NUS.
I’m also thrilled that Joe Vinson was elected Vice President Further Education, Dom Anderson Vice President Society and Citizenship, Rachael Mattey Vice President Union Affairs, Colum McGuire Vice President Welfare and that Rachel Wenstone was reelected as Vice President Higher Education. They are going to make a fantastic team.
I still think NUS needs to do a far better job at reaching out to ordinary students. As a delegate, I did my best to consult students about the motions I was voting on, but it’s difficult to create that engagement, especially when what you’re sending them is a god knows how many page document. I can’t pretend I have all the answers, but it starts with NUS being more present on our campuses. NUS needs to go to students because students aren’t going to go to them. I was really pleased to see full time students like Rhiannon Durrans and Ben Dilks standing for Block of 15; it’s good to have someone other than sabbs (nothing against sabbs, but…) standing, and I hope to see more of this in future.
NUS is very factional, and I don’t think this is a completely bad thing. I agree with what Liam Burns said in his leaving speech; factions are about students coming together and organising around shared beliefs to put those beliefs into practice and that’s a good and admirable thing to do. But though I do think factions are a force for good, there needs to be a way into NUS for students who don’t ascribe to this factions or that faction.
There were also some quite serious access problems at this conference; most notably the length of the days. It was hard for me to maintain concentration but for students with certain disabilities it would have been close to impossible. Additionally, with issues such as whooping and clapping in the middle of speeches, the importance of not doing things like this should have been outlined clearly at the beginning. The chairs (who all did a fantastic job, by the way) did keep reminding people throughout, but as they hadn’t been told properly in the first place I can sympathise with delegates who were confused and didn’t fully understand why they were being told not to clap and cheer.
None the less, it was fascinating to final see the sovereign body of NUS in action, and I would defiantly encourage anyone who wants to to run to be a delegate. Sitting through slightly more procedural motions than you would like (to note I think the Democratic Procedural Committee did an excellent job, and I certainly do not envy them!) is worth it to get to be part of setting the direction of the student movement.