Last month Exeter were represented by 5 delegates at the NUS Liberation Conference, a space for attendees to discuss matters relevant to members from the Liberation groups represented. Sunday Blake and Taylor Watson have provided a summary of their time at the conference!
In May 2019, I campaigned to stay with the National Union of Students in the Students’ Guild Referendum on Membership of NUS. Ideologically and pragmatically, it made sense. Students are becoming more and more disenfranchised, Universities were becoming increasingly marketised, rent was increasing at a faster rate than our maintenance loans, our mental wellbeing was in disaster, graduate career outlook was dim, and misogyny, racism, and classism were present – notably on our campus. Students were getting a raw deal, and I wanted us to be part of a strong, national lobbying body to address this. After all, the NUS is an organisation that won us an exemption from council tax, cheaper travel, and the right to vote. I threw myself into the #StayWithNUS campaign and we voted to remain affiliated by a handful of votes.
However, as an officer, my doubts began to creep in early as I witnessed several red flags. The first was that my colleague, VP Welfare and Diversity found it incredibly difficult to get through to anyone. Mental health support was one of the reasons I campaigned to stay affiliated, and yet our designated wellbeing officer was being ignored. When she eventually got through, she was told to visit a paywalled website that our affiliation fee gives us access to. This is hardly sector-leading support.
My other colleague, VP Education, had to make the point several times that current NUS work is London-centric, and any campaigns running never reach students at Exeter. Eventually, we had an evening event run by the NUS VP Education, who is a fantastic individual, and a fierce campaigner – as are all NUS officers. But personal admiration aside, I am still unsure what - if anything - the NUS can do for Exeter. I haven’t heard from them all year. When I searched ‘postgraduate’ on their website, the only information that came up was how to cost a PhD, and how to get council tax exemption; information we can find practically anywhere online. If I didn’t get the email reminder for the annual conference just gone then I wouldn’t even know we were part of it.
The only other time we’ve made contact was when the CEO came to visit us, and we were able to relay our frustrations to him. Our VP Welfare asked him directly what benefits we received from our affiliation and his answer was, “at the moment, not much.”
When COVID-19 hit and Universities around the UK went into lockdown, the NUS did set up Stay In Touch skype meetings once a week. Unfortunately, I realised that these were more for the NUS than for officers. In fact, given mine and VP Education’s sector leading work on lobbying for a No Detriment Policy – a piece of work we did with no NUS input - most of these meetings involved us informing the NUS on best practice, instead of the other way around. As the weeks went on, I began to prioritise meetings with the University, Doctoral College, Guild, or students I represent.
I spoke about my concerns with the current Guild President, Patrick, who had attended the NUS conference as a delegate the year before. He told me to wait until I attended the conference, and then make up my mind. So, I did. I ran as conference delegate for the national conference, and I ran as disability and women’s delegate for the liberation conference. I was voted in to all three positions.
The first thing I noticed when I was sent the conference literature of motions and candidates was how many elected positions were uncontested. My campaign for Guild president was fiercely contested by other candidates and their dedicated and ferocious campaign teams. So, to see national positions uncontested was baffling. A body representing over 600 universities should have garnered more engagement.
The conference motions themselves were good, in principle but I had deep concerns about their practically. They were amalgamations of submitted motions, where themes collided, and they seemed to try to do everything at once (perhaps out of fear of criticism that they overlooked a group or demographic?). When considering my vote, I would ask myself if I agreed in principle, if there was evidence to support the motion, and if the motion would realistically be achievable. Unfortunately, most seemed unspecific, did not account for how they would be enacted, and were very poorly researched.
The motion debates, which I turned to for the clarity on the written statements omitted did not help. I listened to an officer speak passionately about sexual assault and ‘lad culture.’ Of course, I agree that sexual misconduct and harassment is terrible. But, as a collective audience, we all knew and agreed this. What was going to be done about it? The motions seemed to be about morality over practically. Condemning toxic cultures and symbolically standing with survivors is fantastic, but students need real, material solutions.
Continuing the symbolism over materiality theme, the debates were filibustered with trigger warnings. Now, I advocate for content warnings on distressing material. I have been open about being diagnosed, and recovering from, cPTSD, and how these have helped me in the past. But one trigger warning at the beginning of a debate is all that’s needed. The woman’s caucus had a motion on sexual misconduct. During the motion debate, if someone mentioned sexual misconduct without prefixing the trigger warning “I am about to talk about sexual misconduct,” they were quickly stopped. If a motion is on sexual misconduct, expect discussion to be about sexual misconduct. I left the debate feeling frustrated and uninformed.
I attended the disabled student caucus next. I was looking forward to this as since I’ve been directly involved in disability activism from my first year in Exeter setting up the ExeterAbility for disabled students, to my work this year in co-founding the Chronically Ill and Disabled Network, lobbying for more accessible parking facilities, and working with architects on accessible designs for new buildings. However, the debate was terrible. The sign language interpreter they had booked had had her screen turned off so hard of hearing delegates were unable to participate. This is unacceptable at a disabled student caucus, and incredibly disappointing considering the NUS Disabled Student Officer has done so much hard work lobbying for digital access in universities.
Other accessibility issues included the use of the online chat box, which automatically scrolled when a new comment was made. There were close to 100 delegates so you can imagine how quickly the conversation moved. As someone who prides myself on slowly considering and measuring up every legislative decision I must make, this was frustrating. I know a dyslexic delegate found it impossible. The ‘debate’ was largely disabled students airing their frustrations and agreeing with each other. As someone with a chronic illness myself I know how valuable it is to have a space to rant but this should be a separate space from one for constructive discussion around policy, and scrutiny of proposals. I imagined a trip down the pub would have brought a conversation that isn't too dissimilar. I saw no criticism of any motion, bar a few tweets, and this concerns me.
My final frustration was how every speech act was pre-fixed with “as a disabled person…” Similar to the content warnings of the women’s caucus. It was time consuming and unnecessary given that, by virtue of being delegates, we were all disabled. This was compounded when one delegate began to describe a diagnosis we share as “something used to oppress women.” This was very difficult for me as I have gone through a long journey of recovery. When I refuted this point, the delegate responded that they had the diagnosis and so they are right. I did not want to disclose my diagnosis, publicly, to almost hundred strangers. And yet, it seemed my criticism of the argument was only valid if I did. The pressure to be forthcoming with identities and demographics rather than considerations and arguments felt uncomfortable. I believe in constituent representation and I believe in allowing people to speak of their own experiences – which we were doing – but we must have process that leads to conclusive discussions. In the long run, it is thorough and unyielding scrutiny of inaccessible university systems which liberate us as disabled students. I did not witness this with the NUS.
By the end of the liberation conference, all motions had passed. Which, I thought they would be. When motions are set in ideology – ideology held by almost all attendees – rather than action, they will always pass.
I voted against two motions. Not because I disagreed with them but because nowhere did they tell me what, or how, the NUS would enact them. Or, more importantly, how they would impact the students I was there to represent: Exeter students.
I’m a unionist. Through and through. I believe in democracy and the power of collective action. But I’m also incoming Guild President, and I have a duty to do what’s best for Exeter. As an officer I have spent this last term nurturing a close and trusting relationship with the University. This is where I believe our efforts are best spent. The NUS may be beneficial for some unions (I feel their further education college and sixth form members found the conference more beneficial than I did), but right now Exeter needs a strong and well-funded students' union, who can focus on local issues. I disavow my previous position, and given the chance, would disaffiliate.
As someone who fully supported our NUS membership in the last referendum, I’m surprised to confess that I’m starting to question whether or not we made the right decision. On the face of it, we did rather well at the NUS Liberation Conference – two of our proposals passed, helping to shape NUS policy for the next few years. However, the conference was far from perfect. In some twisted irony, the Disabled Student’s Caucus was inaccessible to many students with disabilities, displaying a concerning level of incompetence that the most basic of planning could have prevented. The discussions were also lacking. Conversations were more focussed on making political statements than pragmatic proposals to shape the future of education in the UK. Of course, people’s hearts were in the right place and I absolutely support the causes they promoted, but ideology doesn’t fix attainment gaps or systemic discrimination. The NUS does lobby for some great things, but I think we need to have a discussion on whether spending our money elsewhere could be more beneficial to our interests.