Over 1,200 students, campaigners and elected officers arrived in Brighton on the last Wednesday of April for the National Union of Students (NUS) annual conference.
Besides electing new NUS President Shakira Martin, the Conference passed approximately a hundred motions on subjects ranging from welfare, education, new membership and national citizenship.
Ms Martin, who describes herself as a “black single mother from a working-class family,” won against the incumbent Malia Bouattia with 56% support last April 26.
The outgoing President was pushed into second place by 130 votes; Ms Bouattia, the first black Muslim to hold the post, oversaw widespread controversy and has repeatedly denied accusations of anti-Semitism, having once referred to Birmingham University as “something of a Zionist outpost.”
The election followed a string of 26 disaffiliation referendums by Students’ Unions around the UK last summer. While three universities left the NUS, Warwick voted overwhelmingly to remain within the union, with 63.4% for and a record turnout of over 10% of students.
Conference delegates from Warwick included Alexandra Bevis, Hope Worsdale, Chloe Wynne, Dapo Adaramewa, Uma Kotwal and Chairman Rose.
Uma Kotwal, former co-President of Warwick Anti-Sexism Society commented: “I really enjoyed the conference. It was wonderful to see so much passionate engagement with the political issues of our time. Although my delegate report highlights some issues with democracy and accessibility, overall I think it’s great that Warwick is represented on a national scale every year.”
However, Chloe Wynne, Welfare Officer at the SU, added: “The conference was a really strange experience both to attend and to participate in; the entire delegation of 800 representatives voted in mysterious ways. At times, it seemed as if they were more susceptible to stylistic elements of speeches rather than the substance behind the motions (or candidates) themselves.”
“Therefore, it became a really unpredictable conference. It didn’t feel as if the delegation had a backbone nor a clear vision, but rather were swayed by charm, eloquence and even sass.”
The Conference passed motions to provide free sanitary products to universities and oppose both tuition fees and the marketisation of higher education:
The NUS has resolved to provide free sanitary products, including tampons, menstrual cups and sanitary pads for students to pick up from their local unions. The initiative has already made an impact in Birmingham and UAL but is now being scaled up nationally. While the government scrapped the 5% “luxury” tax on tampons last year, the NUS has estimated that on average, female student will spend over £18,000 on period products in her lifetime. This follows recent reports of students in Leeds missing classes as they could not afford sanitary towels.
Birmingham student and incoming Welfare Vice-President at the NUS Izzy Lenga said: “The price of tampons is not just sexist, it’s classist.”
“Students are left asking whether their period will affect their bank balance or their health.”
“We have to break the cycle and say that while the Government may not care, we do.”
At the end of last year, Warwick SU introduced free sanitary products which could be accessed by visiting the Welfare and Campaigns office or filling an anonymous online form.
The NUS has motioned to “oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a ‘graduate tax’ which is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘student debt’.” Citing Article 2 of the 1998 Human Rights Act, the Conference described access to to education as a fundamental human right, and attacked the “deep marketisation” of education proposed by the Teaching Excellence Framework alongside the steady increase of tuition fees. This motion saw several amendments and saw the longest debates of the day.
Birmingham Welfare Offices Ross Strong said: “We know that fees, debt and the cost of living is effectively pricing less-privileged students out of education,’ he added, ‘and we have seen countries such as Germany abolish tuition fees in response to student demand.”
However, the motion faced opposition from delegates questioning how the tuition fees should be subsidised and calling free education a pipe dream. The abolition of tuition fees has also been announced as a Labour policy in the upcoming general election campaign.
Students are left asking whether their period will affect their bank balance or their health.
What a wonderful world HE could be
The Conference pledged to develop a “manifesto for teaching excellence,” in consultation with students, students’ unions and the wider higher education community. The plan is a response to the ongoing campaign against the Higher Education and Research Bill and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which has come under fire for commercialising education at the expense of academic freedom.
The Conference promised to support local unions in involving student representatives in university governance and to investigate ways of empowering students and improving education quality outside of market competition.
Don’t go breaking our Arts
The NUS has agreed that “ideological cuts to local government are wrong” and that is “there have been monumental shifts in how creative degrees and arts institutions are viewed by society and the Government.” The Conference agreed that prior NUS campaigns to support creative students had been disappointing and pledged to do run research into hidden costs on campuses and work together with creative trade unions to help students find paid jobs in the industry.
Second-year English Literature student Lauren Hurrell commented: “It’s a relief to have some recognition of the struggle that creative students go through in terms of employment post-university, especially considering the lack of support within the university itself.”
Support for Joint Honours degrees
The conference concluded that Joint Honours degrees are a new alternative to the traditional Single Honours degree courses, and that the number of students taking such degrees is on the rise. Many of the combinations available are offered between different “schools” which do not communicate with each other when issues such as timetabling are made.
As students have no control over which department is their “parent school” some students are just not provided with the departmental support they would normally have if they studied a single honours degree.
The conference resolved to work with Students’ Unions (SU) to ensure that universities provide greater contiguity between departments therefore ensuring the processes behind joint honours degrees are smoother. They also planned to conduct a survey of Joint Honours students in the UK to find out what support structures they feel most necessary, and support SU’s better to ensure that universities avoid timetabling or deadline clashes.
Make sports inclusive for trans and intersex students
The NUS has motioned that transgender and intersex students should be able to join the sports teams that are most appropriate for their gender identity.
They have stated that external companies affiliated with some universities’ sports clubs should adjust their policies to facilitate inclusion for transgender and intersex students and that such students should not be obligated to disclose their legal gender or personal medical information in order to participate in university sports.
Noorlann Shahid, the NUS LGBT+ officer believes that this motion will receive great support as sport can be a big issue for trans students. She argued that it will be a positive addition to the “great strides in terms of trans inclusion in the last couple of years”.
University of Warwick
Meanwhile, the University of Warwick proposed some broader social motions with respect to the constitutional sovereignty and foreign policy issues.
The Warwick Students’ Union motioned to abolish the country’s monarchy, citing the Queen’s additional taxpayer income of £2.8 million in 2017-18, bringing up her total income to £45.6 million. The Conference also pointed out that the Queen’s representative had made use of royal powers to sack a left-wing government in Australia in 1975.
Believing that the church and state should be separate and that “we ought to be equals and citizens, not subjects,” the Conference decided to issue a statement calling for a Republic.
Warwick delegate Chloe Wynne said she supported abolition in principle, but “the NUS Conference 2017 isn’t going to progress that principle, and I think we have a responsibility to not give right-wing press a stick with which to beat us, because negative click bait headlines undermine the work we do.”
The Conference motioned to condemn the government’s decision to replace Trident alongside with any further use or endorsement of nuclear weapons as well as campaigning for disarmament.
It concluded: “The government wants to spend billions on murderous weapons of mass destruction at the very time it is gutting public services. Our society is not short of money – there is huge wealth in the pockets of the rich – but this is a terrible way to spend those resources.”
However, this motion has drawn criticisms for being unrealistic. Blessing Mukosha Park commented: “Personally I feel that the Student Council should be focused on more pressing and relevant matters, for example right now, there’s a massive mental health epidemic amongst university students, we need so much for support for that.”
I think we have a responsibility to not give right-wing press a stick with which to beat us, because negative click bait headlines undermine the work we do.
The Conference has pledged solidarity with the free West Papua cause. West Papua is the western half of New Guinea which has been occupied by Indonesia since 1962, with native Papuans strongly desiring independence.
The occupation was legitimised in 1969 by an “Act of Free Choice” in which 1 000 Indonesian representatives in West Papua were bribed into voting for integration. It is estimated that the number of Papuans killed since 1962 at over 100,000, causing several scholars to call it a genocide.