Is NUS serving the me generation?

As another university decides to disaffiliate, Harriet Swain asks if this is the beginning of the end for the National Union of Students.

This time last year students at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology decided to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students. Recently, student leaders at Southampton agreed to do the same.

The four largest Scottish universities and Imperial College, London, have long been outside the NUS - Dundee rejoined but disaffiliated again five years ago - some Oxford and Cambridge colleges go in and out but, despite regular debates and referenda on the subject in many other student unions over the years, UMIST and Southampton are the first major ones to take the plunge for 20 years. Could it be the beginning of the end for the NUS?

The union scoffs at the idea, reeling off lists of universities that have held referenda in the past 12 months and voted resoundingly in favour of remaining affiliated.

Stirling University voted 73 per cent in favour of NUS, Birmingham voted 74 per cent in favour, Surrey and Sheffield 97 per cent in favour and Aston 99 per cent.

Moreover, decisions to disaffiliate by UMIST and Southampton were not made through a cross-campus ballot but by student politicians, which means the NUS disputes their validity. It is battling with UMIST over this, while Southampton students union plans to hold a referendum, probably in November, to check its decision has wider support.

The NUS argues that what for those involved appears a new and intensely fought fight over student democracy during the brief spell of their university careers, has in fact happened in much the same way for contingents of students before them and with little result.

This is difficult for students to dispute because the NUS is the main gatekeeper of student history, which for most individual students and students unions is rewritten every three or four years of a degree course.

But there are a number of factors that suggest this time it could be different.

First is fees. These have given political alternatives to the NUS a rallying point. The Campaign for Free Education has proved adept at raising high profile support, organising national marches attended by students who would never normally follow a radical agenda, and rallies at the House of Parliament with celebrity speakers such as Damon Albarn from the pop group Blur.

The Aldwych group of unions, representing students in old universities, has also found a strong common cause in fears over the introduction of top-up fees.

The main trouble with fees for the NUS leadership is that they have been introduced by a Labour government to which they are close - worse still, to which many of their predecessors have gravitated after their stint in student politics. Even if NUS executive members do not harbour political ambitions within the Labour Party themselves, they are suspected of it.

So there are political reasons why the NUS may be in trouble. On the other hand, fees have also made students less political and more interested in material benefits.

A repeated complaint from students outside the student movement is that NUS leaders are too involved in in-fighting and political activism and not enough in day-to-day student concerns.

This has prompted recent pledges from NUS president Andrew Pakes to revise the NUS's democratic process, for example by giving some decision-making powers to regional councils and to concentrate on improving student services.

Tom Hopkins, vice-president (representation for students) at the University of Edinburgh, says disaffiliation means officers can represent Edinburgh students more directly, both politically and in terms of services.

"NUS services don't really take into account Scottish tastes," he says. "Scottish students like different sorts of beer. Irn-Bru doesn't sell well in England at all."

Tasha Newton, president of the students union at the disaffiliated Imperial College, says: "I think one day it will be possible to produce an apolitical group of universities where there will be a mutual agreement between people on services, without pressure to go out and demonstrate or do the kind of thing that gets us into trouble with the national press."

She says the only recent move by Imperial to reaffiliate was sparked by an NUS deal with McDonalds for free beefburgers. It was rejected.

But money has been at the heart of both the recent successful disaffiliation campaigns. Students at Southampton felt the material benefits of being members of the NUS were not enough to justify the Pounds 64,000 annual membership fee. UMIST's students union, which paid Pounds 27,000 per year, had similar motives.

The NUS has a turnover of roughly Pounds 3.5 million and a membership of about the same number of students.

Some of this money comes through sponsorship from companies such as Barclays Bank, Ford and telecommunications company Telco, which is sponsoring the NUS card this year.

About Pounds 70,000 per year comes from the Department for Education and Employment, which is also sponsoring the NUS's National Student Learning Project to promote key skills.

More comes from rental income on the union's former building in Endsleigh Street in London. But the bulk comes from students unions, which pay affiliation fees according to a calculation based on their block grant from the university divided by the number of full-time students and a tenth of the number of part-time students.

The smallest further education colleges pay Pounds 47 while fees from the largest union - a figure the NUS will not disclose - run into tens of thousands of pounds.

In return for this money, unions get access to cheap booze and other catering deals, negotiated through their trading arm, welfare services, discounts through the NUS card at some record shops, restaurants and clothes shops, legal help and political representation.

An NUS spokesman said: "We also do the best and only training specifically for students union officers, including career development. It can be quite daunting if you are 20 and elected to a post in charge of just under Pounds 1 million."

This is a further factor that may be responsible for changing the NUS power base. More than 50 per cent of higher education students are now aged 25 or above but the NUS leadership is predominantly made up of 20-somethings at the start of their careers, without the family commitments and attendant financial worries of many of the people they are supposed to represent.

Noone at the union can remember an NUS president over the age of 30.

Pounds 12,000 sabbatical posts are unlikely to attract someone with plenty of working experience who has struggled to pay their way through a degree hoping to up their future earning power.

Barry Farleigh, deputy president of the Mature Students Union, said: "The trouble with the NUS is that the student population has evolved but the organisation has not."

He has already taken issue with the union's constitution, which pledges to promote the interests of students in "youth issues" and not to discriminate against people on grounds of sex, disability or religion, without mentioning age discrimination.

Mr Farleigh has also complained about a London Transport campaign, to which the NUS added its logo, promoting cheap travel for students under 24.

"Mature students need a lot of specific issues addressed, such as child care, but it isn't seen as a sexy area," he said.

But for the time being at least, mature students have little alternative voice.

The NUS has around 720 affiliated students unions from universities and colleges throughout the United Kingdom. In England, all but Imperial College and the recent disaffiliated universities are members. In addition, the union has about 35 members from higher education colleges and another 550 from further education colleges.

This is a difficult area because further education college student unions are so much poorer than higher education unions and have to be subsidised.

As pressure to do more for FE members grows so must the support from university unions.

"There has to be some cross-subsidisation from cash-rich higher education to cash-poor further education," said the NUS spokesman. "We cannot ask FE colleges for money they haven't got."

He said it is a long-term investment and has general support from higher education members. The union wants more money for individual further education unions and recognises that it must help develop democracy, services and welfare in those unions and ensure proper structures are in place before this money is made available.

Even then, the NUS is often criticised by further education students for not doing enough.

But if further education college students are needy when it comes to the NUS, many of those in universities are becoming increasingly self-sufficient.

Canny management of bars and entertainment means some are now turning decent profits.

Others are banding together in local consortia to meet local needs. Today marks the launch of the private company Liverpool Student Media, established through a collaboration between students unions from Liverpool University, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Hope University College.

The aim is to produce not only a fortnightly newspaper, aimed at Liverpool's student population, but also student directories and guides generating money directly for the region.

Eventually, it hopes to provide a gateway to the student market for industry, through conducting research on the student market.

Company director Michael Hunter, general manager of Liverpool Students Union, said: "The NUS brings unions together on the political front and in a number of regional political activities. We are looking for a much more practical expression of that."

A different kind of consortium has existed for about 15 years for the disaffiliated unions in Scotland.

Northern Services, a purchasing consortium set up by the students unions of Edinburgh,

St Andrews, Glasgow and Dundee, now has 13 full and two associate members, including Imperial College and now Southampton University.

It aims to offer members the chance to obtain "better deals than they would individually but with suppliers tailored to suit any regional variations in taste and demand".

Each union pays a Pounds 50 joining fee and Pounds 25 per year but with only one permanent staff member most running costs are met through a small slice of the discounts negotiated with suppliers.

Some student unions contact the consortium if they are thinking of disaffiliating.

But Andrew Whincup, president of Glasgow University's Queen Margaret Union and this year's president of Northern Services, said new members would not be actively sought.

While expansion is possible, they are certainly not striving to offer NUS competition.

"We have it written into our constitution that we will never be a rival to the NUS," he says. "One of the advantages of Northern Services is that it is small, so is tailored much more to what individual members need."

If the NUS ever does come under threat - and for all the grumblings by local student politicians it has not happened yet - it is most likely to come not from a large rival but from the "me generation's" aversion to large organisations speaking for them and their preference for services that directly appeal to their personal wants.

THE PROCESS OF DISAFFILIATION

Individual student union constitutions dictate how they make the final decision about whether to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students.

* Some hold regular referenda, others leave the decision to the executive or a quorate council meeting. The NUS tries to ensure the decision is made by the whole student body through a referendum.

* Any union wanting to withdraw from membership of the NUS has to write to the national executive before July 1, giving six months' notice.

* They must still pay the annual subscription for the following academic year, which is due in October and includes a 3 per cent discount if paid by October 31 and a 3 per cent surcharge if not paid by December 31.

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY . . . IMPERIAL cOLLEGE

Since 1922, students at Imperial College, London, have been members of NUS for only an eight-year stretch and have now been outside it for 20 years.

They benefit from deals negotiated by Northern Services but sometimes arrange their own. These include, for example, Pounds 34.01 per firkin (nine gallons) for ordinary bitter from a local brewery and Pounds 41.62 per firkin for premium bitter.

ICL students union has a discount scheme offering between 10 and 15 per cent off meals at local restaurants and further discounts at shops, record stores and hairdressers.

It has just negotiated a deal with UMIST and other disaffiliated universities to provide training for sabbatical officers, provided by Andersen Consulting.

ICL's subsidy last year was Pounds 739,000.

President Tasha Newton says it keeps up with student developments in other universities through membership of the University of London Union and the Aldwych Group.

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