This is a site designed to make it easier to take the core of large published reports and allow anyone to comment on them.
Comments have been collated and sent to NUS; although you can still leave yours on this document
NUS Reform- The Way Forward?
NUS was formed in 1922 by students wanting to come together to achieve peace. Since then we've grown and developed- helping students pool their resources, speak louder together and grow their students' unions, guilds and associations.
As NUS has grown, it's also taken on new issues, activities and services. Some would say too many. So our new mission takes us back to our enduring purpose:
And like all good organisations, we have a new vision too- NUS as a pioneering, innovative and powerful campaigning organisation: the definitive national voice of students. We'll fight barriers to education, empower students to shape both a quality learning experience and the world around them, and support influential, democratic and well-resourced students' unions.
Of course, it's not just about mission statements and principles. Over the past year we've been working on changing NUS' structures too. You set us a task in meetings, conversations and then at the NUS Annual Conference.
Across the summer period the NUS National Executive Committee have agreed to consult with our member unions, stakeholders and students on the way forward for NUS Reform.
Revised proposals will then be presented early in the Autumn at which time you will have chance to consult with students locally and submit amendments.
We would specifically encourage any reader of this document to respond, using the questions herein as a starting point rather than a limit to responses.
Respondents should ensure all responses are returned to NUS by August 31st 2008:
By Email email@example.com
By Post : NUS Reform, NUS, Centro 3, 19 Mandela Street, London, NW1 ODU
"A democratic structure which is agile, cheaper, and more accessible- with clarity between roles of officers and staff and which enables the organisation to make decisions that benefit members"
You fed in ideas, proposals were then developed, they were amended on and voted on at an Extraordinary Conference. But at Annual Conference they just missed the 2/3 majority necessary to pass.
So we know they weren't perfect- which is why we need your feedback. This document is a summary of the current structures- what you said was wrong, and what we proposed to put them right.
We'd very much encourage your feedback so we keep NUS on the road to reform. Have a read, and email firstname.lastname@example.org
The purpose of NUS
NUS' constitution was last seriously updated in 1980, and it contains a 16 bullet point list of aims. NUS has only this year developed a strategic plan and has recently restructured its management, finance and staffing structures.
In recent years NUS has created five "Zones" to simplify its work into broad categories- Education, Welfare, Union Development ("Strong & Active Unions") and wider society issues ("Society & Citizenship"). In addition we have 3 "nations" (Scotland, Wales and NUS-USI) and some "social policy" areas for International Students, Mature Students, Anti Racism and the Environment.
Although there has been considerable internal change our constitution did not reflect or represent them properly. The relationship with NUS' nations suffers from a lack of clarity over responsibilities, and support for the Zones and Liberation campaigns is uneven.
A simplified Mission and Vision statement has been created and a "member benefit" test developed to ensure our work benefits students through students' unions. We proposed effective "Zones" by ensuring a Vice President and Committee of students' union reps and staff to back up and lead the work. We also proposed new arrangements for Liberation campaigns and nations that improved support whilst retaining political autonomy.
Comment: This may be slightly irrelivent to this topic but I think the clarification of these 'zones' is important. Being an activities Sab myself it seems that more emphasis is being put on the welfare and education ... Reply?.
Did we get this right? Are you happy with NUS' new Mission and Strategy? Do you agree with the vision for "Zones"?
Finance and Legal Issues- Ending the mismanagement
NUS' is constituted as a membership body of students' unions, guilds and associations. That means the "National Executive Committee" holds the legal responsibility and liability for NUS' work and has the job of scrutinising management, fiduciary and legal work carried out by staff. In addition, Conference elects a "Finance Committee" of students and non students with limited powers.
The trouble is that for many years NUS was poorly managed, producing £m deficit after deficit with a culture of waste and poor monitoring. In addition "National Executive" meetings naturally wanted to focus on motions and politics rather than the detailed monitoring of budgets and staffing issues. Finance Committee couldn't stop the rot. And when the NEC were advised by their professional internal managers, they almost always rubber stamped the advice with almost disastrous consequences.
Comment: I'm confused as to what the purpose of the NUS Board would actually be in this case. On the one hand, it's suggested that the NEC poorly managed NUS's finances. But on the other hand, it's suggesting that ... Reply?.
Comment: Surely the best way to prevent the loss of money from the organisation is to employ impartial auditors. People who could highlight exactly where money is going and not going without any bias as to what ... Reply?.
Comment: Implies that there is a need for greater transparency in how the NEC and the professional internal managers work. Addressing the problems in how NEC officers are trained to deal with finances, should ... Reply?.
NUS' management and finances are in a much better shape but you wanted a structure that minimised the risk of financial disasters from happening again. So a new "NUS Board" was proposed, with the President, four of the Full Time Student Officers, six students and four appointed "Lay Trustees" to hold the legal responsibility and liability and scrutinise the management and finances of NUS.
The idea was that it would take its mandates from the other parts of NUS structures that would set down policies and campaigns, but because it would have held liability in extreme cases would be able to stop some things from happening (only after seeking detailed legal advice and reporting it to Congress, unlike now where the President alone has that power in practice). The Congress itself would have approved the appointment of the four Lay Trustees- recruited specifically for their expert skills- and could have removed them.
Comment: If the board of sabbatical and student trustees are seeking legal advice then what is the point for external trustees? External trustees while they may have experience in their field do not necessarily ... Reply?.
Comment: Would be interesting to have 'extreme problems' clarified. Congress will be voting on who gets appointed but who is involved in the selection process before. Congress can remove them but not much incentive ... Reply?.
Not everyone was comfortable with the final structure proposed. Are there ways in which we could improve the proposal?
Full Time Officers or "National Office Bearers" — Leading NUS Effectively
NUS has six full time sabbatical officers- a President, Treasurer, Secretary, and three Vice Presidents, for Higher Education, Further Education, and Welfare.
The roles of Treasurer and Secretary, created in the 1930's, are outdated and hark back to a time when the Treasurer personally wrote the budget, and the Secretary carried out all of the administration! We now turnover Â£7m and employ over 100 staff. You told us you wanted modern, political leadership roles with the backroom admin done by professional staff.
So you proposed a new officer structure- keeping the President and creating five Vice Presidents to convene NUS' zones- one for FE, one for HE, a VP Welfare, and new VPs for Union Development (focussed on issues like Student Activities and Union Governance) and a VP Society and Citizenship (focussed on issues like Climate Change, Students in the Community and student campaigning)
Comment: It is unclear which VP if any is concerned with promoting liberation campaigns,minority student interests etc, although this could ideally be a major role for the VP responsible for social policy. Reply?.
Comment: Does this model not implicitly restrict the responsibilities for oversight of the NUS Organisation (which actually implements decisions) to the President? Reply?.
Comment: Is it sufficient for a political organisation, to have one officer focusing on developing campaigning strategies?
An implication of this vision of the VP Society and Citizenship is it doesn't ... Reply?.
Do you think the structure we proposed for the officer team was right? Is there anything you would change?
Comment: Students who come from Liberation groups deserve to be represented with their issues on a national office bearing level. Reply?.
Comment: I think the officer for union development is a a bit of a hazy title, I can see this person being spread a little too thinly on all the other areas that aren't covered Reply?.
Comment: One of the concerns I have had about the NUS and how it could be improved is with communicating to the membership. Although there has been some improvements in this is recent years, including a Communications ... Reply?.
Making Policy- Reflecting the needs of our members
In the current structure, Students' Unions send in "motions" in December on issues that they think NUS should take a position or take action on. These get published and then unions can amend them. Once that is done representatives from unions meet to shortened the length of the "motions document" with scissors and glue, and then these are debated formally at the Annual Conference.
One of the problems with the system is that it assumes that all students' unions and their officers already have detailed policy development mechanisms in their unions. In fact whilst some do, some do not- shutting out many from NUS' processes. Most of the policies submitted actually come from NUS political groups, sent round to unions to submit in the form of model motions to be rubber stamped and submitted locally- hardly democratic. And it also means that many things submitted by students' unions fall off the agenda because each item is debated formally and separately.
You told us you wanted a "formative" (ie discussion and education) as well as a "summative" (debating and decision making) stage to policy making, so you could engage in the topics, hear evidence from experts like NUS Staff or Sector professionals and feed back without having to make a grand speech or draft an 800 word motion. But you also wanted to keep the formal democratic stage and keep the right for an ordinary union to submit a policy proposal. So a series of consultative conferences were proposed for each of NUS' five main work areas (or "Zones"), after which the zone committee would make a policy proposal to the Congress that could catch these "consensus" issues. To avoid "stitch ups", all unions could amend and or reject the report democratically. We also kept in a formal motions process for more contentious matters. The idea was to create more time for debate at Congress.
Some people were worried about these proposals. Do you think there are changes we can make?
Comment: I think policy input will always assume that all member unions of NUS have structures that enable students to become active within NUS which isn't true. Too many unions are members for the purchasing benefits ... Reply?.
Do you have other ideas for better policy making that properly involve all our members?
Comment: Involving all of the membership will not be possible, if the exposure to policy making remains limited to the conferences and NUS networking events.
Improving how the NUS communicates to the ... Reply?.
The Annual Conference
At the moment each year in April some 1400 delegates from students' unions come together for 3 days to the NUS Annual Conference. It debates formally the policy proposals submitted, elects a range of officers and committees, sets the budget for the year ahead and elects a range of officer positions. Delegates from HE have to be elected by a "Cross Campus ballot" of all members
Research carried out at Conference 2007 suggests that many delegates find the event tiring, inaccessible and confusing and very difficult to engage with. Lots of the agenda is taken up with bureaucracy or procedural matters rather than policy debates. People feel the whole thing is "stitched up" and only the most confident speakers get to contribute. They also told us that the days- which last 9.00am-11.00pm are much too long and there's little time for fringe events and networking. Many unions have very low participation in the Cross Campus ballot and wanted an alternative but democratic way of selecting their delegation.
Comment: What does the NUS or the average SU do throughout the year to engage students? How is that impacting on participation in these elections? If the NUS isn't visible or relevant, then why would you get involved ... Reply?.
To solve some of the problems we proposed a new Vision for an "Annual Congress" that was unfortunately misrepresented by some. The idea was to improve and extend the important parts of Conference- policy debates, elections, and accountabilities- and simplifying the rest. We proposed changes to the agenda and procedures so that there was more time for debate, fringe events, elections and accountability- which is why people told us they come. We'd also have simplified some of the procedures and enhanced training for delegates. Contrary to some propaganda, it would not have been a "one day rally" and would still have had the highest power to debate and set the political policy and campaigns of the National Union. Finally as long as an alternative method was in their constitution and democratic, unions would have been able to apply to be exempt from the Cross Campus ballot requirement.
Is there more we could have done to make Conference/Congress better?
What changes would you like to see?
Comment: Ideally conference should be longer, with a day per zone but shorter days as well as incorporating informal events like workshops to motivate delegates to put the new ideas in to practice on their own ... Reply?.
International and Part Time Students — Hearing the missing millions
At the moment NUS has an "International Students" committee and conference and a part time officer to represent the many issues that this group of students face. There is also a similar committee and conference for Mature students. When we work out how many people can come to NUS Conference from a particular union, we only count part time students as a tenth of full time students- something that reflects the tiny number of PT students when the figure was set in 1979 rather than the over 40% of PT students today.
Both International Students and mature Students have a tiny budget and little staff support. As a result they find it hard to deliver for their section of our student membership. Part time students don't have a defined voice, and many think it's unfair that PT students are counted as a tenth of a full time student
Comment: As someone who has encountered some of the difficulties which face mature students, I propose that the NUS engage with us by promoting greater understanding and awareness, and consultation within individual ... Reply?.
You told us that we had to dramatically improve representation in these areas- so we proposed better funding, staff support and a plan of delivery for both of the campaigns and a Full Time officer for International Students. We also proposed widening the scope of the Mature Students section to include Part Time Students, and dramatically increasing the representation of Part Time students at Conference.
Comment: This time around, why not consult with the committee directly and give them the respect they deserve.
As a committee member for MSC last year, i was not aware of the proposed changes and had ... Reply?.
Are you happy with the proposal as described?
Do you think these changes would help or hinder these "student sections"?
Are there other things you would do?
Getting Involved in NUS
At the moment there are not many ways of getting involved directly in NUS. There's the "National Executive Committee" which has 27 members, a Finance Committee and a Steering Committee that runs Conference. There is also an elections committee with 4 elected members and the opportunity to become a "National Councillor"- we have three in each region.
Students' unions and similar organisations often have hundreds of volunteers, but NUS' structures actively prevent all but the most political people from getting involved. In addition the people that do get involved often feel powerless or disillusioned by the structure.
So we proposed a new volunteer strategy and policy, and new committees for Welfare, FE, HE, Union Development and Society & Citizenship ("Zone Committees") that would have involved staff, officers and students from local students' unions. These less formal committees would have led NUS' work in a particular area, scrutinised the work of full time officers and worked with unions to deliver campaigns and programmes of work
Comment: Does this not explicitly disenfranchise people who are not specifically interested in one of the five zones? Reply?.
Do you think the proposal was the right one? Are there things you would have changed?
Comment: Presumes that all SUs will be able to facilitate a structure for getting students involved in the zones. Developing on how this would enable NUS to support unions especially in smaller ones with no full ... Reply?.
Further Education — Representing Colleges and VI Forms
At present there is an "FE Campaign" and an "FE Budget", but only the Vice President for FE has to be an FE Student- in fact out of 27 members of the NUS Executive Committee only one is from FE.
To correct this, we proposed that FE should get a guaranteed five minimum places on the NUS Executive, and its own Zone Conference so that FE issues could be raised to the highest levels. A new FE committee, elected by and from FE students would have helped lead the NUS FE work. We would also have increased delegate entitlement to Conference for part time students which would have significantly helped FE where the majority of part time students are.
Comment: How is it remotely feasible to have FE representation when the vast majority of students are only in FE for 2 years.
By definition, any FE representation will be by those who have returned to ... Reply?.
Do you think these proposals were right? Is there more we could have done?
Regions, Networks and Student Groups
At present we have one form of membership- students' unions. NUS does meet with other student groups like People and Planet, or RCN's nursing section but they have no formal role in the National Union. Locally there are "NUS Regions" in England where the nine areas meet three times per year at a Regional Conference. Across the UK there are hundreds of union and student networks which are not built into NUS structures and officially "ignored" by them.
You told us that rather than investing in powerless, rigid English Regional Conference structures, you wanted NUS to invest in local training and networking and a range of less formal networks- like Mission Groups of Universities (such as the 1994 group), or an environmental network. You also suggested that we allow national student groups to have associate member status- not with voting rights but able to engage properly on the issues that they have expertise and passion about.
Do you think these proposals were right? Is this the most effective approach to deliver partnership with student organisations?
The Political Leadership — An effective executive body
At the moment NUS has a "National Executive Committee" which consists of twelve non portfolio part time officers elected as a block at Annual Conference, six full time sabbaticals and officers for Liberation campaigns, International students and Nations elected at their conferences. These 27 people meet at least 5 times a year and divide up their responsibilities for NUS' work. The part time officers get an allowance. The body as a whole is held accountable by a "National Council" of people elected in regions.
You told us that you find it very difficult to hold the NEC to account, and that its role (especially the "Block of 12") was not properly defined. Are they there to hold the Full Time Officers accountable? Should they follow the mandates from Conference? In addition you said that they were not holding the right discussions and held too many responsibilities for an executive.
So we proposed a "Senate", or a "National Executive Council" that would have had representatives from across NUS' work and a Block of 15 people to act as the political leadership of NUS. It would have resolved competing interests, created interim policy, debated and set the political direction and instructed the Board on spending priorities. The "Block of 15" would not have been officers but would have been representatives representing the breadth of NUS' membership, recompensed for visits for work on campaigns.
Was this proposal right? Do you think there are other ways we could structure the NUS leadership body?
At the moment NUS conducts all of its elections for committees and officers at relevant Conferences- most happen at Annual Conference with some at the various Nation, Region, Liberation or Social Policy Conference (for example the President of NUS Wales is elected in Wales and the International Students' Officer at their own Conference). All of the elections are conducted via the Single Transferable Vote and it is delegates to the Conferences that are empowered to cast a vote.
Comment: The proposals to have a so called democratic procedures committee with 12 members and only 8 of them to be elected is poorly thought out and unnecessarily undemocratic. If anything it would make more sense ... Reply?.
Unlike elections at a local students' union level, elections for positions on the NUS National Executive and NUS' committees carry few rules or restrictions on campaigning. There is also a regular complaint that people don't know how to stand, that information on NUS' elections is scarce, and that there is little generic support for candidates running campaigns
To solve this we proposed regulation of campaigns and their financing, and a package of enabling measures that would have helped to make it easier for people with less experience or backing to run a campaign. Ideas included:
The Question Were these proposals right? Do you think there's more we can do to make NUS Elections fair?
Comment: the cost of running an election campaign should be seriously capped to Â£40 (or something similar) including donations from individuals or political parties with the penalty of not being allowed to stand ... Reply?.
Comment: I think capping it to Â£40 would be hard especially if we were including travel to these regional hustings.. Reply?.
The officers of NUS are currently held to account in various ways. Officers must contribute to the NEC "Report and Plan" which is discussed at Regional Conferences and national Council. Motions of censure and commendation are possible at Council, and they must produce a "blog" at regular intervals for examination as well as being required to respond to "executive questions" with a certain time frame. Ultimately officers can be subject to a vote of "no confidence" at the conference. Nations, Liberation and Social Policy officers are subject to similar rules within their area.
The existing arrangements for accountability are widely felt to be inadequate and difficult to "see" or "use"
As a result a range of new measures were proposed:
Do you think the proposals were sufficient? Are these other things you would have put in place?
Comment: I don't think there are many things wrong with this document, i just think that if you aren't actively interested or involved with politics and/or familiar with political jargon it is hard to understand ... Reply?.
Comment: To keep representatives accountable their activities need to be transparent to the membership. It would be interesting to see how having minutes sent out in mailing lists would work. Reply?.