EIC Jordan Hunter describes why, despite recent student election candidates lobbying for membership, Glasgow is not likely to join the NUS (and probably shouldn’t).
Over the last election cycle, the idea of Glasgow joining the National Union of Students (NUS) cropped up once again, accompanied by a discussion about costs, collective bargaining, and it’s connection to Covid-19. Many of these conversations were confusing, often missing the main causes for concern, so I decided to sit down and go through the archives and see what I could find about Glasgow’s reluctance to join the NUS. In the end, I discovered an absolute dumpster fire of self-aggrandising and posturing, threatening the very soul of Glasgow.
The NUS is first and foremost a political union focused on lobbying on students behalf for things such as cuts to tuition fees, travel discounts, and to voice the political concerns of students. The problem with this is that the NUS only affects change in the UK parliament, which has no competency over Scottish universities. There has been little effort for the NUS UK to lobby for certain policies in Scotland.
Of course, there is an NUS Scotland – however, their impact on the way that block grants are split, and the allocation of funding, is debatable. Whilst some candidates claimed that NUS Scotland is responsible for increasing the block grant, and the institution of hardship funds over the last year, there’s little evidence to support that. Additionally, even if they could do such things, Glasgow still benefits from these without paying NUS membership fees, as those policies were implemented for all Scottish universities.
Being part of the NUS has political connotations and drawbacks. Top leaders are often elected as part of political factions, which can limit the NUS’ ability to negotiate on behalf of students without presenting as a student extension of certain political parties. They are notoriously slow for dealing with issues and often reject direct action, even if it aligns with the causes they stand for, such as the push against austerity and student fees. Glasgow’s students have for years fought to decolonise education, especially during the last rector election, but this notion only became an NUS Scotland objective this year despite lobbying from students.
What does it cost? The NUS usually require member unions to pay a certain percentage of the member union’s block grant from the University for association, typically 2.5%. This might not sound like a lot, but this year would have cost the SRC between £30-40k, and that’s with a 30% budget cut. Certain candidates claimed that, thanks to the NUS, the increased block grant meant union’s somehow had more in the coffers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. These block grant’s go towards all kinds of things such as staff, upkeep, publications like ours (in-non pandemic years), training workshops like “Mind Your Mate” and, in the case of GUU and QMU, subsidising the copious amount of pints of fun you’ve shamefully bought over the years. NUS membership would likely mean cutting certain services and/or staff as the budget would be slashed. Additionally, NUS tries to sell that the benefits of affiliation matriculate down in the form of their membership card which is good for discounts on travel and more. This, however, still comes with a membership card fee of £15. Not to mention, many of the discounts will take your student card alternatively, which is free, but also the NUS membership card doesn’t even require you to be a student at a member institution, so you could still get all those perks without forcing the SRC to join.
On the local level, there are also larger problems with the University of Glasgow in particular. We don’t just have one student union, we have four. The current lobbying power for University-specific issues comes from our four union approach. In the past, one of the largest problems in negotiating with the NUS is the fact that Glasgow has multiple unions providing different functions. The NUS has seen this as a problem, as it undermines their ability to bargain at the campus level, and they will attempt to cut these unions out as much as they can or try to limit their ability to function as student bodies. Whilst some of the NUS supporters on campus say that the four union system promotes “tribalism”, nothing could be further from the truth. Every union understands their role on campus and actively tries to support one another on behalf of students. Even GUU and QMU work together in the interest of students as they both represent different aspects of student life; the competition of old can be chalked up to chants during Freshers’ Week and weird union traditions (if you’ve seen the Smoker, you’ll know what I mean). Further competition for block grant money would likely lead to the closure of one or both of these unions. Student unions are already struggling to bounce back from the pandemic, meaning more student jobs would be unavailable as they would be unable to continue to employ students to work in their bars and hospitality services.
Even at the individual level, student grievances will take longer to be addressed, as the SRC and NUS would have separate complaint systems and would constantly be having to reconcile the differences in order to lobby the University. Not to mention at the national level the SRC has been effective in campaigning and pressuring the University to support students and their causes. Direct communication with the University has been instrumental in getting things like no detriment, compensation to students living in halls this year, and training and support for students.
The NUS provides no additional benefit to students that they already don’t receive, and could cost us not only tens of thousands of pounds but also the very soul of our current system. In all likelihood, if the SRC had their budget cut, we would see students losing their jobs, services being cut, and the loss of what makes Glasgow student life so unique; all in the name of more collective bargaining that, in all honesty, doesn’t even exist nor provide additional benefits.