NUS Disaffiliation: Richard Brooks

We spoke to NUS Vice President Richard Brooks about the consequences of leaving, what the NUS actually does for students and how their democracy works.

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Between 24-27 May, Cambridge will decide whether to leave the NUS. We know there’s a lot going on. Here’s a guide to the issues behind the NUS Disaffiliation Referendum. 

Cost of Disaffiliation

Richard Brooks said the financial argument was not “the only argument [in favour of affiliation] but I think it’s one of the key ones. “You cannot underestimate the significant financial impact that leaving the NUS would have on student unions,” he said.

While for most, the NUS primarily saves them money through the 40% off at Pizza Express, Brooks said the effect was further reaching than just NUS card sales, and that, among other services, the NUS provides a “purchasing consortium” where Unions can buy discounted supplies.

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Pizza Express – apparently not the only NUS benefit

According to the projected 2016-17 Budget, disaffiliation would have a net cost of £3,500, including the £10,000 CUSU pays the for their website.

At CUSU Council, President Priscilla Mensah strongly denied being in “financial crisis” and any potential accusations of “financial incompetence”, instead citing “financial difficulties”. According to the budget briefing, CUSU has “healthy [financial] reserves” of £341,000.

Jack May questions the financial argument. He told The Tab that “to prioritise financial issues over the legitimate concerns of Jewish students, and the wider student population would be deeply unsettling… On a more practical level, reaffiliation is entirely possible should the NUS be forced to reform radically following the potential disaffiliation of many UK universities. In the meantime, students could work with and through CUSU to ensure that its vast reserves are used to maintain all student services.”

A National Student Voice

Brooks also spoke about the non-financial costs of disaffiliation. “If the student movement was to become fractured and to become disengaged, the main people to lose out would be students because they’d lose their national collective voice,” he said.

Jack May questioned this. “Students have always had enormous power when they organise themselves into active campaigning groups… It’s entirely possible that without the crutch of the NUS to rely on, more students will realise how vital it is that students stand up for their rights, and engage more with political issues that matter to them – whether that’s getting out and voting, protesting, or standing for elected office themselves.”

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Cambridge ZeroCarbon – students already using their voice

Accountability

The Tab had a front-row seat for CUSU-style democracy at CUSU Council. When asked about the NUS’s brand of representation Brooks said “I don’t think our [current NUS] democracy does work. There is a lack of accountability about how those delegates vote.”

The NUS’ closed balloting system, where the votes of delegates are not made public, has been criticised for preventing representatives from being held accountable for their votes. Individual delegates are supposed to maintain communication with students and publicise their positions on issues.

When The Tab contacted the five Cambridge NUS delegates to inquire as to their voting intentions, we were unable to confirm the position of two representatives, including CUSU President Priscilla Mensah.

She has a bigger mandate than any CUSU President in years

She has a bigger mandate than any CUSU President in years

For Brooks, it all comes back to the need for reform from within: “We will fix it at the national conference next year.”

Disaffiliation to force change

Brooks holds issue with the idea that disaffiliation is most effective way to express dissatisfaction and encourage change. He instead argues that “if you are unhappy with the political direction that NUS is taking… The only way to shape it; to address your concerns, is engaging with it and to use the democratic levers you have to change it.”

NUSceptic is a decentralised nationwide movement for disaffiliation which is not associated with the Cambridge campaign. When The Tab got in touch with a spokesperson for the group, they explained they want to force the NUS to reform its voting system,  “so it no longer remains a progressive-left echo chamber and is actually representative, and it drops its no-platform policy and focuses on our right to free speech.”

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Students better off out?

When asked about the One Member One Vote option, which would allow each member of the NUS the opportunity to vote for President, Brooks insisted that “if you want NUS to change [to OMOV] then you have to turn up to next year’s conference and vote for change”. When elected, he “stood on the platform of reforming the NUS’ democratic system” and hopes to bring a “new, radically different, democratic model at next year’s NUS conference.” Brooks was clear that One Member One Vote was, in his opinion, the way forward.

The NUS has confirmed that if CUSU were to disaffiliate, reaffiliation would likely be possible, with multiple other SUs leaving and rejoining since its formation in 1922. If Cambridge disaffiliates, there would be a second referendum held in 2019.

Richard Brooks spoke against disaffiliation in the CUSU-run debate last night.