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The university’s Union Council voted Thursday to approve proposed reforms to the National Union of Students (NUS) and mandate its delegates to vote in favour of them at this year’s Extraordinary Conference.
The new reforms are the second attempt to seriously reform the NUS, which exists in largely the same organisational state as it did in 1960. Attempts to pass similar reforms failed during the last academic year, where they were approved at a December 2007 Extraordinary Conference but failed to reach quorum at the 2008 Annual Conference.
Just 25 votes prevented the motion from passing at Annual Conference, of which four were from members of the Lancaster delegation who broke from their mandate.
Following the defeat, NUS consulted with students’ unions around the country in an attempt to develop the reforms to a state where they would reach quorum this year. Once the nature of the reforms had been decided upon, a call was made for an Extraordinary Conference at which a vote will take place.
The reforms aim to increase participation in NUS activities and to diversify that range of students that do get involved in NUS activities. It aims to do this by developing five so-called “policy zones”, covering “welfare, further education, higher education, union development… and society and citizenship”.
Each zone’s remit would be to research issues which affect students, investigate the best strategies in order to deal with those issues, and attempt to widen participation in the policy-making process.
Also targeted are the currently-low levels of influence wielded by part-time and international students, with the proposals including better funding and staff support for these groups and a dedicated officer representing international students.
There will also be significant structural changes to NUS as an institution, with the aim of creating “greater transparency, accessibility, clarity and the type of effective balance of power which should be at the heart of any democratic system.”
While delegates’ actual votes at conference will be mandated, they will still have free votes on all amendments. NUS delegate Fraser Welsh raised concerns about this at union council, arguing that the very fact that there will be amendments meant that union council’s vote to approve the measure could not be fully informed.
Also raised was the concern that the process of mandating was undemocratic, given that some candidates for NUS delegate stood on a platform of opposing the reforms and yet would now have to support them as a result of the mandate.
LUSU President Michael Payne disagreed, however, stressing that the reforms were what was needed, and not an argument over procedure and mandating like the one that wrecked last year’s attempts to pass reforms.
NUS delegate Kate Fry said in a statement following union council that she felt that, while reform was needed, the current reforms did more harm than good, and took power away from students.
Mandates too were a bad idea, Kate said. Although NUS delegates were given the right to vote freely on amendments, amendments could change the nature of the new constitution so much that its original spirit was lost—making the mandated “Yes” vote potentially inappropriate and unrepresentative.
Instead of a mandate, Kate argued, the vote should be one of conscience—especially given that some delegates, including Kate herself, “were elected on a platform of ‘I don’t like the consitution’.” To deny such delegates a free vote was, she argued, to deny a voice to the students that voted for them, and to make their election somewhat pointless.
Also singled out for criticism was union council itself. Most of its members, Kate believes, are not particularly well-informed on the issue and had likely not read the proposed constitution: their “yes” vote was merely their toeing the line, their going along with people such as “[SCAN Editor] Dan Hogan and [LUSU President] Michael Payne, who know about the reforms and are in favour of them.”