This is what one delegate had to say about the event in their blog:
"The OIs and the NOLSies claimed that demonstrations don't work with Wes Streeting proposing we fight neo-liberalisation by writing letters, dressing up and being more 'creative!' Well I'm not sure if was street theatre or messages written on f*****g origami that won black people or women the right to vote. Of course we need to be creative as a means of getting people involved. But only national direct action involving tens of thousands of students with the support of British workers (which we have) can win on fees."
For those who don't speak fluent NUS, OI is 'Organised Independent' and NOLS is 'National Organisation of Labour Students'. OIs tend to be Labour supporters, but they don't actually say that. Any true independent is organised if they are running a campaign for election at a massive conference - so why do you need to attach the word 'organised' to the term?
NUS has repeatedly claimed that demonstrations are a last resort. They may be a way of showing the strength of feeling on a particular issue, but if you have too many of them they will lose their effectiveness. Continually having them will make people wonder whether the message will ever get through. You need to have a variety of ways of getting a message across to improve your chances of getting the result you want. I think the delegate's interpretation of the term 'creative' is wrong. It doesn't necessarily mean "theatre or messages written on f*****g origami". It means to think up fresh ideas. These new ideas then need to be thought through properly, instead of being totally reactionary. If you are reactionary then you risk failure.
The same delegate also had this to say:
"NUS refused to fight for a free and fully funded education system and instead voted to hit minority students hard by maintaining its policy of supporting ineffective and humiliating means tested grants."
Similar opinions were expressed in this delgate's blog. Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but I have to disagree on both points. Firstly, a free education system won't work. It might have in the past, but more people attend university now, facilities have increased and research is even more diverse. If you want to maintain a high standard of education the funding has to be there, so money has to be paid. However, I think we should still campaign using the 'Keep the Cap slogan'. Lifting it would mean more money going to universities, but they would become much less accessible to many people. The ideas of 'free education' and 'Keep the Cap' seem to have been merged at some point, which causes confusion. This needs to be cleared up and thankfully, after talking to Wes Streeting (NUS's VP Education) about it, he says this is going to be one of things he will do. I hope he does actually do that, or I will be both disappointed and angry. Yes, politicians can lie - but not getting a clearer definition will mean serious problems with the campaign.
Secondly, the idea of universal grants will not work - I must have said this a million times. Yes, students who need money will get it, but it also means that the richer students who don't need the money will get it aswell. That money could be redistributed to more worthwhile areas, but in that situation it would be wasted. Means testing means that only the people who need the money will get it. All that is needed is reform of the means testing system to make it better for students, not a complete change.
Other education issues that were discussed were plagiarism, degree classifications and the admissions system. On the subject of the Post-Qualification Applications system, Wes Streeting said this:
"Naturally these areas are vital to students. Post qualification assessment determines a less hectic and arbitrary entry process, while reform of degree classification has the power to influence future graduates’ job prospects."
I agree with him - PQA will work. It will be a more accurate representation of a student's abilities. The current system of using predicted grades is totally inaccurate as all it takes for a grade to change is a poor performance in an exam.
This issue of degree classifications was interesting. The motion that debated stated that the current setup doesn't help employees. It also stated that the pass/fail model wouldn't help either, but it didn't actually state a solution to the problem. I don't think there is a problem with the current degree classifications though. It separates students and if any further separation to determine quality is needed, you have things called job interviews, CVs and application forms. What's wrong with that?
With plagiarism, it is definitely important that it's detected to ensure fairness. However, the proposed use of software such as Turnitin won't work. It might mean the detection process is faster but it all depends on the work that is available in the database. If the right work isn't in there when e.g. an essay is checked, then plagiarism goes undetected. You might be able to add more and more work to the database, but there will always be some that doesn't go in there. Also, it doesn't address the issue of making sure every student knows exactly what the definition of plagiarism is. It gets more difficult when there are international students coming from areas where there are different definitions.
There was also a huge debate over anti-semitism/racism, as highlighted in this Guardian Unlimited article. One of the points discussed was whether the NUS should adopt the EUMC's definition of racism, which is:
"Racism shall mean the belief that a ground such as race, colour, language, religion, nationality or national or ethnic origin justifies contempt for a person or a group of persons, or the notion of superiority of a person or a group of persons."
Racism is something which I absolutely detest. It has been responsible for the deaths and torment of many innocent people throughout our history and I welcome the fact that a definition will be adopted because then you have a starting point which helps with creating strategies for campaigns. Sam Lebens, a member of the NEC made an impassioned speech as part of the debate and he explained he would like to see the faces of those with racist views, instead of them hiding behind secret ballots. Some saw that as intimidation. I didn't see it that way though. He was merely angry at people who are cowardly and who don't choose to express and defend their viewpoints.
Apart from the impassioned debates, there were also elections. Gemma Tumelty (President), Stephen Brown (National Secretary) and Wes Streeting (VP Education) all got re-elected with big majorities, meaning that there will be consistency on the exec. There will also be some new faces providing new ideas and viewpoints.
Ama Uzowuru was elected as VP Welfare with a big majority. I was going to vote for Richard Angell. He had a big campaign and some good ideas. However, Ama also had good ideas, the support of many of the NEC which will ensure harmony next year and she also had a far better election speech - the speech being the thing that changed my mind about who to vote for.
Dave Lewis was narrowly elected as the new Treasurer ahead of Sam Rozati. I voted for Sam though because he has three years experience on the Finance Committee whereas Dave only has one year's experience as NUSSL chair. Sam also made more points about finance in his speech, making it more relevant to the role.
Beth Walker was elected as the new VP FE. Beth will take over from Ellie Russell, who has done a fantastic job and is a great NEC member.
There was also the Block of 12 elections. I feel their will be a strong block next year. As well as that, there were the elections for Steering Committee, Finance Committee and Rules Revision Committee. RRC had the funniest election speeches. One speech was a rap, another featured the tearing up of the NUS Constitution and the third was just full of jokes and one-liners.
Finally, a few points about reform. Conference is incredibly bureaucratic with too many rounds of speeches, procedural motions, parts and votes. The training for first time delegates was very poor and needs to include more details about protocol when debating motions and amendments. National Council is a waster of time and money as it costs £50k a year for three meetings. They could use that money to afford a full-time International Officer and Mature Students Officer (two things that were wanted by many, but the relevant motions got pushed off the agenda). Also, the number of delegates is an issue. NUS try to get unions to either affiliate or re-affiliate, but that will eventually mean there is not enough space in the Conference hall! There also needs to be more involvement from the FE sector - I hope that is addressed next year.
So, what do other people think about NUS Conference and my views on it?
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