During my time on the NEC, I have made it clear that I feel that NUS needs to be more democratic and participatory. I have realised though that the centralisation of power in the NUS leadership is disempowering them in the organisation more widely. This is perhaps best shown by the peculiar fact that the NUS fulltime officers organise in a trade union.
In a democratic organisation like NUS power is supposed to flow in a kind of horseshoe: decisions flowing upwards through the democratic structures from the membership to the elected officers, and then their implementation moving downwards through the staff and volunteer structures. I believe that this version of democracy is limited. I want to see a more radically democratic and mass-mobilised student movement, in which decisions are not merely handed down after nominally being discussed at a very limited conference. But it is nonetheless what NUS should, by its own standards, be doing.
However, this principle is often undermined. You can see it most clearly in the first half of the ‘horseshoe’ where elected officers are able to exert their power over the democratic structures to which they are supposed to be accountable. What is less visible, but equally important, is that the relationship at the top between officers and managers has been undermined too.
NUS officers deserve decent working conditions like everyone else. That they have decided to join a union shows that they currently feel mistreated by the organisation’s management. This is a serious problem and I stand fully in solidarity with them. But ultimately the fact that they felt the need to start a union betrays much bigger problems with governance and power in NUS.
NUS is – or should be – a democratic and student-led organisation. Changes to policy should not come from trade union negotiations but from the democratic structures. On issues like their pay and conditions the officers shouldn’t be able to make the decisions on their own, but it should be decided democratically. The recent and positive decision to increase NUS officers’ child-care allowance is political: we are saying that we want to spend some of our finite resources on ensuring that student parents can become full-time officers. The same can be said for pay, working hours or expenses.
Most employers are not democracies: they are run from the top down. Trade unions exist to tackle this power imbalance between employers and employees. In most organisations it is relatively easy for employers to treat their workers badly. There are plenty of unemployed people willing and able to work so if anyone leaves they can be easily replaced. Pay can be low and working conditions poor. The strongest weapon workers have is solidarity – uniting to defend their rights and make demands from their employers. This is the best way of challenging the huge structural power that employers have over them.
The fact that NUS officers have to organise in a trade union shows that they do not have enough power over the organisation to even ensure their own basic rights are upheld. This is a big problem for them, but also for the student movement as a whole. When an officer feels like they are being treated inappropriately by their employer they go to their trade union rep (an officer or officers). The trade union rep then negotiates with management to resolve the issue. If the officers were in charge of the organisation this would mean an exchange between one person representing them and one person who working for them. It’s like having an arm wrestle with yourself.
The reason for this lack of power links back to that first part of the horseshoe: the absence of a culture of democratic participation and accountability. This has been a trend in NUS over a number of years: a series of governance changes ostensibly designed to modernise the union, but undermining accountability in the process. Examples include replacing a winter conference with the Zone Conferences, and making NEC so large that it cannot function as a proper Executive Committee. The same has happened in students’ unions: scrapping General Meetings and Union Councils, and relying on Trustee Boards.
Increasingly, the main constraint on what a student officer can do is not their accountability to the membership, but their relationship with management.
It is clear that a loss of accountability represents a shift of power from the membership to the central leadership. But what is more interesting is that it also disempowers officers in relation to managers. The great irony is that as accountability drops, so does the officers’ democratic legitimacy, and therefore power. And this is the only source of authority that they have over the unelected staff, who are often more experienced and knowledgeable than them, and who are not directly accountable to anyone but their line manager. If NUS allowed more opportunities for accountability not only would power be distributed more widely amongst the membership, the officers themselves would have more power over the organisation.
I understand and respect the NUS officers for organising in a union to fight for better rights. Similarly, I don’t really blame individual managers for running the organisation in this way when that’s what everyone around them expects. But the whole situation does make you question who actually runs NUS.
My year as student President at Edinburgh was characterised by ongoing fights between officers and management. And I learned that when it was me versus them I always lost. But when I could legitimately claim the democratic backing of the membership I always won. The same will be true in NUS.