Division and ideology marked the first day of the National Union of Students’ National Conference. Despite the attempts of national headlines to snatch their attention, delegates and NUS officers managed to focus on the matters of the day for most of the nine long hours of conference.
Despite what Twitter may have reported, at the point where national news did briefly disrupt conference, it did not erupt in spontaneous applause: only a minority of delegates applauded at the news, and they were given a stern talking down later in the day.
The clash between old ideas and the new ran throughout the day. Liam Burns set the tone with his opening speech. Promising something ‘divisive’, the NUS President spoke of the need to look forward to the General Election of 2015, warning of the folly of arguing for an abolishment of fees, or the dogma that learning must only be for learning’s sake.
Drawing heckles from some delegates, he said the NUS needed to abandon holding “expensive national demos” for the sake of holding a demo. The Union’s time, and money, could be better spend on campaigns that put forward their agenda in a way that engaged those outside of higher education, not one that alienates.
Welfare motions were up for delegates to debate and vote on. The abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was often debated, with varying opinions. Some called for the EMA to be be reinstated; some, including the NUS President, said they did not want the EMA back – they wanted something “ten times better”; and some hopefuls called for a ‘living grant’ for all students. The motions and amendments passed favoured the ‘better’ option, leading some supports of the former and latter to decry on Twitter that the “NUS has just voted against the EMA”.
Free education picked up the EMA’s divisive mantel to finish the day off. Delegates batted the argument back and forth on whether to support an amendment to a motion on the NUS’s higher education funding policy, calling for the Union’s “fundamental and principled on education funding should be that it is free at all and any level”. The amendment fell, but was replaced by the equally contested call for another national demonstration in the new academic year (which would march under the banner of “bring back EMA”).
The loudest applause was for the delegate who berated those calling for “another London-centric demonstration” for the sake of one, arguing instead that unions should concentrate their efforts on encouraging local activism, a view which the majority of conference obviously shared given the result of the vote.
The final amendment, which called for “no cuts: tax the rich, and business, expropriate the banks; a living grant for every student; and student support for workers’ struggles on campus and beyond” met with the same fate as its predecessor.
The motion eventually passed without amendments. Balancing higher education funding between the individual, society and business, but with scope for new progressive policies was the decision of Conference.
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