Simon Blake: The 41-year-old paid £100,000-a-year to run the NUS

He earns five times more than Malia Bouattia

The National Union of Students is starting to look a lot like a microcosm of the EU, of late. Universities up and down the country have been launching “In” and “Out” campaigns, engaging in referendums in which to disaffiliate themselves from the NUS. Hull University for instance claims they pay £50,000 a year in affiliation fees to the NUS and have recently voted to opt out.

Amongst anti-Semitic allegations and accusations that the current staff are completely out of touch with the student population, is the union falling apart under the CEO Simon Blake? And more importantly, why does he earn £100,000-a-year, even more than his predecessor?

Who actually is he?

Originally from Cornwall, Blake went to Cardiff University where he read Psychology. He was an active leader at university, joining the LGBT society and helping to set up “The Shag Group”, a sexual health awareness group concerning HIV prevention. After working in a few other health related roles, Blake became chief executive of the UK’s largest sexual health charity, Brook, where he remained for five years, and in 2011 was awarded an OBE for services to the voluntary sector. In 2015, Blake joined the NUS as chief executive.

He replaced Ben Kernighan, who stepped down unexpectedly from the role after barely 10 months, due to rumours of “internal power struggles and differences over strategy”. Aside from work, Blake’s reported hobbies include horse-riding and walking his dog Dolly (after Dolly Parton).

Why is his salary important?

Blake seems like a nice enough guy on paper – well-rounded, altruistic, a proven innovator and leader, with a good taste in 70s Country music. The NUS is a representative student body, purporting to both promote and defend our rights by acting as a mouthpiece when it comes to governmental affairs. Take the £9,000 a year university fee hike-up for instance. The NUS fiercely opposed it, unfortunately to no avail. The NUS is the national voice of students. They’re good at making the voice heard – but whether they’re saying the right things is up for debate. The NUS would justify Blake’s salary because this is such an important role which requires a candidate of a certain calibre.

As CEO, he isn’t really involved in the politics we know the NUS for. He has to support the elected officers in their roles. He’s responsible for running the commercial and business end of things. He’s the head of a national charity responsible for training thousands.

But is Simon getting it right? Miki Vyse, a previously elected member on the National Executive Council at the NUS explains why  she is pro-Simon:

“I’m very pro-Simon, and his pay-packet to be honest. The way the NUS works is that the young people are in charge. Malia Bouattia, the elected president of the NUS, is the boss, but the CEO works ludicrous hours doing extraordinary work, under her direction and leadership. It’s all in the name of democracy and giving young people a voice. My opinion is, if you want the job done properly, you have to pay accordingly.”

Fair enough, you might say. It seems that it is the CEO who takes care of the corporate and commercial side of things, providing direction for the long term plans of the organisation. The president, however, is the one who makes the all-important decisions when it comes to liaising with the government on student issues. Surprisingly, according to the NUS ‘Elected Officer Positions’ handbook, the salary for the full-time role of National President is just over £23,000 a year – almost a fifth of Simon Blake.

There are some that think the NUS is not only unrepresentative, but that you can’t justify Blake’s appointment either.

Simon is fresh-faced, charming, but potentially lacking in experience. He is, after all, the CEO and his role focusses on business and commerce, leaving elected, younger officials to run the politics. But with the NUS in disarray, is it any wonder he is trying to fix it?

Whatever your opinion on the man, who – granted – seems like a decent guy on a personal level, you’ll agree that he is either, grossly overpaid, or that the National President is grossly underpaid. But, who can blame him for trying to fix an organisation that is clearly at odds with itself?

Some would call it simple hypocrisy that a hard left organisation, famed for fighting unjust elitism in the corporate world and arguing for the right to free university education, should employ a CEO with a salary so big and that is utterly disproportionate when compared to his role? Or at least, we don’t see the value of his role.

But Blake himself knows there’s problems. He said:

“The NUS has always been at the forefront of progressive politics but the paradox of that is that we may have things we still need to work on.”