Yes – Ben Towse & Grayden Webb
The NUS would like to portray itself as the valiant defender of students' rights. And with universities facing brutal cuts and students facing potentially massive fee increases, our voices need to be heard. But the NUS has been woefully inadequate as a campaigning organisation and shows no sign of changing that record on these challenges. It failed us on tuition fees in 1997, on top-up fees in 2004 and it couldn't even get a seat at the table for the fees review in 2009. It couldn't win students free prescriptions or equality in the minimum wage. Its campaigns attract neither grassroots support nor attention from those in power and are, ultimately, totally ineffective. To be fair, this is sometimes a blessing rather than a curse. For instance, its ill-judged campaign to raise alcohol prices in student-run bars hasn't yet hit Cambridge students' pockets.
But the NUS is our only national union – shouldn't we maintain our voice within it and try to fix its problems? The truth is, we don't have a voice within the NUS. The annual conference, at which delegates from universities around the country are supposed to represent ordinary students and determine the union's direction, is stitched up in advance by the wannabe politicians running the factions dominating the NUS, most notably Labour Students. Unelected politicos decide what delegates get to vote on, and the leadership is perfectly willing to ignore the outcome if it doesn't suit their agenda. Cambridge managed to get a motion passed that would have kept student discount cards free – the following year, the treasurer pretended it had never happened and publicly accused our sabbatical officer of lying. And as if this control weren't enough, the leadership has consistently sought to consolidate its own power at the expense of democratic participation.
Perhaps, some argue, we should just make do with our discount cards (which only 4% of us have) and the support services NUS provides CUSU. But for £9000 in annual affiliation fees, and £10 more for every NUS card, this is a raw deal. An ISIC card gets discounts globally for less than NUS and will soon be legal proof of age. And if, as claimed by our opponents, the remaining NUS services are irreplaceable, why have former sabb officers that know CUSU inside and out from years of service supported this campaign? How have unions like Southampton and Imperial survived, even thrived, without Wes Streeting holding their hands?
So we have nothing to gain by remaining inside, and re-affiliating legitimises an undemocratic and ineffectual organisation. We're not isolationist cynics, calling for Cambridge to simply throw a tantrum and storm out. As far as we're concerned, disaffiliation is a beginning, not an ending. There are as many ideas on what to do with our energy and our £9000 as there are advocates of disaffiliation. Perhaps it's time for students in Cambridge, and across the UK, to speak out where our "leaders" are silent. We can find a louder voice speaking for ourselves and in alliance with like-minded students outside the discredited structures of the NUS.
Serious consideration of this question is long overdue. In the upcoming referendum, let's send a clear message that we're no longer going to allow the NUS to stand in the way of student interests and needs being heard – and we're certainly not going to pay through the nose for the privilege.
No – Tom Chigbo
NUS is a powerful and influential organisation and to surrender our right to influence and engage with such a powerful voice would be irresponsible for a number of reasons. To begin with, Cambridge students deserve a say on matters that affect them and are decided nationally. Secondly, CUSU, JCRs and MCRs would lose vital support in defending the rights of students within Cambridge. The third reason is that cooperation between students unions and collective action is an effective means to achieve our aims.
CUSU, JCRs and MCRs do a great deal to represent students' interests in the University and Colleges. However, many aspects of our experience are actually determined by the policies and actions of people or institutions that lie beyond collegiate Cambridge. For example it is in Westminster, and not Cambridge, that MPs will vote to determine how much students are charged to study for a degree.
For students to be in a position to shape their experience in areas like this we need a strong national voice to demand that students are listened to at every stage. That voice is provided by NUS, who are recognised as "the national voice of students" by government, business, education organisations and the media. CUSU's affiliation ensures that what NUS says to decision makers and how we campaign on these issues nationally remains something that Cambridge students have some control over.
Cambridge students have come up with some of the best and most progressive ideas and policies for tackling a number of national issues, from fees to student welfare, and in NUS we have an effective vehicle to take them forward. Giving this up would not only severely damage our ability to influence these matters, but also see us run the risk of having the only students with a seat at the table campaigning or negotiating without considering the views of Cambridge students.
The benefits of NUS affiliation are not limited to national issues. In fact, as an officer who engages with NUS every day and is responsible for representing students locally, I have witnessed the benefits of NUS to CUSU and individual students at first hand. NUS provides your elected representatives with vital resources and support, allowing us to campaign in your interests and provide you with important services. These range from free training sessions, briefings and research to advice and guidance from a dedicated Regional Organiser and 100-strong team of staff.
We must never lose sight of the fact that students are strongest when they work together at all levels to campaign for change. It is this collective voice that in recent years, through NUS, saved students £20 million by forcing banks to provide us with interest-free overdrafts, successfully lobbied the government to double the Disabled Students Allowance, compelled the Treasury to extend child tax credits to student parents and led to the creation of an Independent Adjudicator to deal with student complaints.
Political differences of opinion can only be expected within a movement that represents a diverse population of 7 million students. However, those with problems have ample opportunity to change the organisation and challenge its leadership through democratic means. Why not propose a motion to National Conference or ask CUSU to oppose an NUS policy? Those who call for disaffiliation are simply throwing the baby out with the bath water. Unwilling to work constructively to improve the student voice, their campaign simply seeks to divide and weaken it. Cambridge would be unwise to listen to such voices and should support NUS affiliation at the upcoming referendum.