Connor Short is the Youth Coordinator for Tory Workers and the Chairman for Wigan, Leigh and Makerfield Young Conservatives.
Ask a student if they have joined the NUS and they are more than likely going to say yes. However, ask them what they get from it, they are most likely going to say a free McFlurry and five per cent off at Amazon. It’s a great incentive and one that I would like to see our own party adopt in some fashion. But, the NUS is failing to show that they are more than a discount card. Their intent on selling discounts more than protections for students’ rights is what will bring them down. Unless they take a drastic change in direction.
Take a look at the NUS website and you will see what every member sees. Protest campaigns about Brexit and voting ages, sitting amongst tips for how to get a job and the discounts offered by the NUS discount card. Here lies the root of the current problem the NUS faces. On their accounts is a £3 million deficit. A quite sizeable deficit for a union. And if all the NUS offers is limp campaigns and a few special offers, they will see more university student unions disaffiliating.
In the last two years, the NUS has lost the affiliation of student unions from Loughborough University, Newcastle University, Hull University, University of Surrey and University of Essex. To lose five student unions is quite a large loss of membership revenue. These five universities add up to approximately 89,000 students, with potential membership revenue from the NUS card hitting a height of £1 million per year. And that’s just the disaffiliated Student Unions from the last two years. The NUS is missing some massive opportunities and need to keep student union affiliation at the forefront of their endeavours, rather than bussing activists down to the capital for a walk around and offering them a free McFlurry.
It is believable that rumours of a student union looking to disaffiliate themselves from the NUS would stir up tensions amongst the student community at the university. However, students simply don’t care. The NUS has failed to properly measure its competition. If it was to continue to market its unique selling point as the discount card they offer, then they should have spotted the rise of UniDays. It is also a discount card that offers discounts in a variety of categories, just like the NUS card. However, UniDays is free. Whereas, the NUS card costs £12 per year. Making the worry about losing McFlurry privileges, gone. Students at disaffiliated universities can simply sign up to UniDays and continue to enjoy discounts at top high street stores and restaurants, without having to hand over a piece of their student loan.
In order to suppress this crisis, the NUS needs to behave less like a discounts-first union and more like a rights-first union with the added bonus of a discount card.
For the NUS to survive, it needs to be seen as a necessity to students, rather than a luxury. Students need to see the NUS standing up against rogue landlords charging ridiculous fees to students, standing up for unfair suspensions of students, and providing legal advice to students who need it, amongst many other social justice fights that we see most other unions providing on a daily basis. Until this spirit of the union is achieved, sadly I do not believe the NUS will continue and students will be left seeking help on a local level without guidance from the expertise a national union would be able to offer.
When the NUS ceases its limp Brexit campaigns and begins to principally stand up for students’ rights, they may see a return to affiliation from some disaffiliated student unions and a decline in the number of new disaffiliated student unions. Thus, they will survive and eventually clear their deficit.