Referendum results: Newcastle votes to disaffiliate from NUS

Following last week’s cross-campus referendum, Newcastle University Students’ Union will begin the process of disaffiliating with the National Union of Students (NUS).

The referendum lasted from Monday 9th of May till Thursday 12th and saw 1475 students vote, with 989 (67%) of votes cast in favour of leaving the NUS and 486 (33%) voting to stay affiliated.

Student Unions are required to give the NUS six month notice and so NUSU will remain a member of the NUS until the end of the calendar year.

This vote was the result of a petition started by Newcastle University student Matt Wilson-Boddy who was also one of NUSU’s delegates at the NUS National Conference in April. The petition asked that the referendum held every three years on NUS affiliation be brought forward to this academic year and reached the requisite 300 signatures in under 21 hours. This is one way of triggering NUSU to hold a referendum.

“The unrepresentative and ineffective nature of the NUS, which has continually proven itself incapable of reform”

Speaking to The Courier, Wilson-Boddy, who also led the ‘No to NUS’ campaign during referendum week commented: “I’m incredibly proud of the way the our team campaigned and the huge amount of work they put in. We ran a good, honest campaign full of passionate people in the face of opposition from the better-funded NUS leadership team and won.”

“I’m pleased with the result, and look forward to seeing how our own union grows in the wake of disaffiliation.  It is a shame, however, that the media has spun our victory to be about the election of a new president, whom we made no reference to in any of our materials, instead of the unrepresentative and ineffective nature of the NUS, which has continuously proven itself incapable of reform.”

Some of the key issues cited by the ‘No’ campaign included the rejection of a ‘One Member, One Vote’ motion at National Conference, a motion on ‘Safe Social Elections’ which sought to forcibly suspend usage of the anonymous social media app ‘YikYak’ during campus elections, which the ‘No’ campaign stated demonstrated the NUS’s disengagement and lack of familiarity with the needs and desires of the average student.

“The decision, celebrated by some and voted on by few, will impact many”

Meanwhile, the ‘Yes’ campaign focused on the NUS’s history of achievements made possible by the NUS speaking for students nationally, for instance their 1992 campaign which led to all students being exempted from council tax and their successful campaign to remove the age cap on postgraduate study loans, alongside the work that NUS does for liberation groups.

The financial cost/benefit of NUS membership was also heavily debated by the two campaigns, with the ‘No’ campaign stating that NUSU’s annual affiliation fee of approximately £52,000 was not getting good value for money, whilst the ‘Yes’ campaign argued to the contrary, also noting the benefits of the NUS Extra card that approximately 2000 Newcastle University students purchase every year.

Rob Noyes, leader of the Newcastle ‘Yes to NUS’ campaign, said: “The decision, celebrated by some and voted on by few, will impact many. What will replace the support for liberation campaigns? How can Newcastle possibly hope to address national issues from inside the bubble of our own university? Leaving the NUS leaves people leading liberation campaigns vulnerable and unsupported.”

Newcastle is just one of the campuses to have held or be intending to hold a referendum on NUS membership. Increased dissatisfaction has been seen from SUs nation-wide over a variety of reasons, typically including accusations of lacking democracy, divisiveness, and that the NUS leadership are out of touch. Referendums have already been held at Lincoln University and the University of Exeter, with the former opting to disaffiliate and the latter opting to remain. Referendums are upcoming at the University of Hull, Royal Holloway University, Oxford University, Cambridge University and Loughborough University, amongst others. A petition has also recently been started at Northumbria University, seeking for the Northumbria SU to hold a referendum on their NUS membership.

“We have already promised and will deliver change in NUS and hope one day soon NUSU will rejoin us”

Speaking to The Courier, the President of the NUS, Megan Dunn, commented: “We’re disappointed Newcastle University Students’ Union has decided to leave the national student movement and disaffiliate from NUS. We understand there were issues raised by students and we could not answer them.

“NUS has a 94-year history of winning for students and that has positively impacted students from Newcastle in many ways. We have already promised and will deliver change in NUS and hope one day soon NUSU will rejoin us.

“Plans to reform our membership model are currently being put in place and we already looking to the long term future of NUS, as we work on a new democratic structure and develop the strategy that will carry us through to our 100th anniversary in 2022

A comment by NUSU President Dominic Fearon, regarding the result was published on NUSU’s website, and stated: “It is clear that our students feel that the NUS no longer represents their views, does not prioritise correctly, and is not effective at achieving change. The current discontent amongst students nationally can be measured in the number of unions considering holding referenda on their membership. We hope that the NUS will acknowledge their shortcomings and will work to become the national union that students deserve and can identify with.”

“The warning signs were there last year when the President of NUSU along with 12 other Presidents signed an open letter calling for reform in NUS; this fell on deaf ears. It is not clear at this stage whether all signatories of the letter will be holding similar affiliation referenda. We feel at this point in time that all students should be given a chance to have their voices heard.”

“I personally believe through moving to a ‘one member, one vote’ system for elections the NUS can make big improvements in these areas and students may become more engaged and represented.”

“Newcastle University recently ranked in the Top 10 for student satisfaction in the Times Higher Survey and were voted “Students’ Union of the year” and “University of the Year” by Educate North. 86% of Newcastle students believe that NUSU campaigns effectively on their behalf; this clearly does not translate nationally with only 33% of students wanting to remain affiliated to NUS.”

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