Emergency elections for an extraordinary conference

News Reporter 15 January 2009

Let the union wars begin. The National Union of Students (NUS) will hold an ‘Extraordinary Conference’ in Wolverhampton on 20 January to vote on NUS president Wes Streeting’s controversial new governance proposal that could curtail union members’ power to influence the policy process through annual conferences.

The executive board of Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), a member of the NUS, subsequently rushed emergency delegate elections on Wednesday, hoping to find students interested in representing Cambridge at next week’s conference.

CUSU, who offered 15 spots at the conference, found only five students willing to put their names forward for nomination: Flora Yu, Clare Tyson, Tom Chigbo, Joe Farish and Marcus King. “The CUSU election committee was keen to have a cross-campus ballot,” Adam Colligan, CUSU coordinator tells TCS. “But, everything wasn’t quite ready or finished.”

“If turnout is low, I think it works as a tactic for the ‘Extraordinary Conference’ to exclude a lot of the grassroots that have a voice at annual conference,” Grayden Webb, Churchill JCR president, tells TCS. “I would not seek to cast aspersions on the NUS leadership, but it certainly seems convenient.”

NUS, which represents the interests of seven million students and has nearly 600 students’ unions in membership across the UK, has been led by Streeting, a Cambridge graduate and former CUSU president, since last year.

In a recent letter to members, Streeting wrote of his hopes for January’s conference to usher in a new officer team at NUS, including a new Trustees board, plus a revamped process for policy changes that would be less reliant on NUS annual conferences.

Ben Towse, Churchill’s JCR External Officer, says there is a “lack of awareness” about what is actually being proposed at NUS. “Most people don’t know what’s going on with NUS reforms, they don’t know the details. We’re making an effort to convey it, but, to be honest, NUS is pretty distant.”

Colligan used Wednesday’s emergency meeting to try and explain the changes to CUSU representatives. Colligan says “the new constitution will look at restructuring the executive of the NUS and how decisions get made . . . the NUS has had poor financial management, staff management and building problems,” he said. “They want to have a focus on regional conferences, with people from different areas getting together.”

King, a last-minute delegate nominee, admitted to CUSU council that he has not read over the proposed NUS changes. Still, he said they are “pretty undemocratic” and that he will be “inclined to vote no . . . but will have an open mind.”

Farish says his “mind is not made up” but is “likely to vote in favour.” Tyson, who issued a 200-word manifesto on her views on Tuesday to CUSU members, campaigned on the theme that she could be a “delegate who is crazy enough to want to sit through another fun-filled day in Wolverhampton.”

“It’s not really CUSU’s fault they’re incapable of having a cross-campus ballot because it’s being called at such short notice,” Ed Maltby, a former NUS delegate and fierce critic of Streeting’s proposals tells TCS. “Certainly, CUSU could be more energetic and do more to explain to students why this is important. They didn’t explain in their e-mail why students should care or put themselves forward.”

Simon Rowbotham, a first year Cambridge student who sits on CUSU’s Education Committee, submitted a motion to CUSU Council to call for the second Extraordinary Conference. He sees the ‘Extraordinary Conference’ as a way to focus NUS goals.

“This year, the Government is, supposedly, scheduled to reassess the issue of lifting the cap on tuition fees. Last year, NUS did not get a good grasp of this event due to the domination of the constitution issue. This year’s national conference must devote ample time to deal with the pressing funding question.”

Yu, for her part, says she’s “eager to represent Cambridge” at the NUS conference. Her enthusiasm is rare. Morna Zhang, iCUSU chair, tells TCS that the delegate nomination process “was on such short notice and sent over Christmas holidays. I doubt many people were checking their emails.”

Robert Costa

News Reporter