NUSU vs NUS

Like the name of the Students’ Union bar, debating Newcastle’s relationship with the NUS has kept students entertained for generations. I was closely involved with both sides of the disaffiliation referendum of 2016, which saw Newcastle leave the NUS, and now, as the vote comes round again and the prospect of reaffiliation is on the cards, seems like a good chance to look back at the institution at the heart of the controversy. This is based partly on research, partly on my own experiences and interpretations.

The NUS: a history

The NUS was set up in the spirit of cooperation that followed the First World War, and Newcastle, then part of the University of Durham, signed up enthusiastically. The early NUS was designed to represent British students on the world stage in the newly formed International Confederation of Students, and this international focus remained at the forefront of NUS activities well into the 1960s.

The International Confederation of Students collapsed in the Second World War, to be replaced in 1946 with the International Union of Students. The spirit of international cooperation, however, was soon overshadowed by the Cold War, and the IUS found a strong supporter in the Soviet Union. The NUS was at this point apolitical, concerning itself only with matters that affected students as students. The IUS was seen as too political, too communist, and the NUS, along with many other Western unions, set up their own International Student Conference in 1950. The ISC was itself soon under influence from the CIA, and the NUS remained an uneasy member of both organisations throughout the 1950s.

In the 1950s the big issue facing the NUS was whether to affiliate itself with Cold War international student movements

By the 1960s, the NUS began to focus more on students in the UK, and, particularly after student protests across the world in 1968, its apolitical stance began to seem increasingly out of touch. Matters came to a head at the 1969 NUS conference, when future New Labour cabinet minister Jack Straw successfully challenged NUS president Trevor Fisk to assume the presidency and turn the NUS political.

As well as its traditional rent strike tactics, then, the 1970s saw the NUS campaign on the likes of women’s liberation, LGBT rights and anti-racism, as well as introduce its ever-controversial no-platforming policy.

Under attack

Its constituent universities had disaffiliated and reaffiliated over the years, but campaigns in Newcastle to leave in 1955 and 1976 came to nothing.

That said, Courier articles about the behaviour of Newcastle’s representatives at NUS conferences in the 1960s and 70s were a frequent source of controversy, with editors sacked, papers impounded and violence threatened.

The Courier supported NUS campaigns defending student grants in the 1970s

In the politically-charged 1970s the leftwing NUS came under particular attack from Conservative students at Newcastle, who in 1980 launched a campaign, which they decided to call ANUS, to leave the organisation. When it finally came to the student referendum, however, Newcastle voted firmly to remain.

By the early 1990s Newcastle was heavily Lib-Dem and the likes of Iain Pigg and Tim Farron went on to roles in the NUS, following in the (much earlier) footsteps of the Courier’s Assistant Editor, Pritam Sahni, who became NUS secretary in 1952.

On a national scale, the Conservative government weakened the student union movement in the 1990s, while the NUS became closely entwined with New Labour. The Labour Students group held a firm grip on the executive committee, with several NUS leaders such as Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy going on to prominent positions within the Labour Party.

By the late 1990s Newcastle had introduced a referendum every three years on NUS membership. From 1999 to 2014 each of these votes saw both a ridiculously low turnout, even by the standards of NUSU elections (just 2% of students voted in 2010), and an overwhelming vote to remain in the NUS, with support barely slipping below 90%.

Growing tensions

This lack of interest in disaffiliation disguised a growing dissatisfaction with the NUS, however. The organisation’s perceived lack of support for students over tuition fees in 2010 damaged its reputation, while the Labour Students group’s control weakened to create something of a power vacuum. The national media began to criticise the NUS for decisions such as its condemnation of Ukip but not ISIS and in 2015 the Courier lambasted the NUS conference. At the end of the academic year the NUSU president joined 12 other SU presidents in accusing the NUS of intimidating conference delegates who disagreed from the majority left-wing view.

Things got worse in November, when Newcastle was unable to elect a full delegation for the 2016 conference. NUSU sent six delegates to each NUS annual conference, which had to include at least three self-defining women. One place was automatically given to the NUSU president, with elections held to decide the other five delegates. In 2016, however, no self-defining women put themselves forward. Nominations were re-opened and the remaining spaces were eventually filled, one going to Courier Editor Victoria Armstrong. 

The 2016 conference itself attracted yet more controversy, particularly over the election of Malia Bouattia as president. Armstrong, along with NUSU President Dom Fearon and another Newcastle delegate, Matt Wilson-Boddy, began to campaign for Newcastle to disaffiliate, mirroring calls at other universities.

The referendum

The affiliation referendum was promptly brought forward a year, to May 2016. With two sabbatical officers openly opposed to the NUS, and the majority of the part-time officer team in favour of staying, personal and ideological tensions between the two teams that had been growing all year came to a head. Members of the Union bubble, from the Courier’s editorial team to student reps and members of Student Council, were all heavily involved as rumours and accusations abounded, with much of the action taking place on the notorious but short-lived anonymous messaging app Yik Yak.

Even with both sides campaigning furiously, voter turnout was still only 6%, but since two thirds of votes cast were to leave, NUSU announced its disaffiliation. The results were announced, during a power cut, at one of the most dramatic Student Council meetings since the 1970s.

Victoria Armstrong’s final Courier as Editor announced the referendum result

Since then NUSU officers have been lacking the political support of the NUS and students have been unable to get their NUS cards, while the Union has enjoyed the freedom to negotiate its own commercial suppliers.

Three (academic) years on and it’s time for Newcastle students to vote once again, with everything from formal debates to snarky comments on Twitter suggesting that the NUS is still as divisive as ever.

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