Report: The NUS #StayOrGo debate

Exeposé News online (4 May 2016)

As students began to vote on whether the Students’ Guild leaves the NUS, Monday night saw supporters and skeptics of both campaigns gather in DH1’s M&D Room for the first public debate on Exeter’s vote.

Chaired by Xpression FM’s Jack Sheeran, ‘NUS Referendum: The Debate’ provoked laughs, indignation and intense frustration as speakers argued how students should vote on the statement: “The Guild should disaffiliate from the National Union of Students.”

Student Ideas and Votes Officer Charlie Evans and PPE student Stephen Hawkins argued the case for leave campaign ‘Exiter’, while Guild President Laura-Jane Tiley and NUS VP Union Development Richard Brooks led the ‘Stay With NUS’ camp.

The night began with 5 minute opening statements from all panelists. Evans opened the floor, admitting that while last year’s referendum was “a humiliating defeat,” it had simply come “at the wrong time.” Evans attended April’s NUS National Conference along with the Exeter delegate and told the crowd that he’d gone in “with an open mind” but saw “carnage” ensue.

Next to speak was Laura-Jane Tiley, Guild President and leader of the ‘Stay With Nus’ campaign. Listing NUS successes – from Co-op discounts and council tax exemptions to raising the Minimum Wage – she promised: “We will continue to fight for change within the NUS structures.”

Hawkins continued the ‘Exiter’ debate – admitting that back in November 2014, he actually voted to stay in the NUS. “I was promised then that there would be reform,” he remembered, “but nothing that they said about reform was even attempted. The NUS continues to get worse and worse.”

Rounding off the speeches, Brooks continued to list the NUS’ benefits for students. “The NUS has had a lasting and significant impact on students’ lives,” he concluded, claiming that reform is on the cards.

Questions were then opened to the floor – sparking a number of heavy debates.

After short debate on the feasibility of free education, next came clashes on whether the NUS should adopt the ‘One Member One Vote’ system (OMOV). The current delegate system means not all students have a voice in the NUS, Evans argued – with Hawkins adding:  “I don’t think an NUS delegate with one per cent turnout can represent me.”

But OMOV wouldn’t be beneficial, Tiley argued – stressing instead that the Guild needs to do more to make students “realise what NUS delegates can do” and increase voting turnout. “If you aren’t particularly happy with the NUS democracy, stay a part of it and you can help us reform it,” Brooks implored students, also claiming that having a problem with the NUS democratic system means also having a problem with how parliament runs. This earned indignant responses from Hawkins and Evans, who argued this wasn’t what students were here to discuss.

One female Muslim student later accused ‘Exiter’ of ignoring the work NUS does to represent minority groups. “The NUS does do great work,” Hawkins admitted, “but you have to weigh up the good and bad.” Claiming that if you fall into “a certain minority, the NUS doesn’t support you,” he cited cases of Atheist and Humanist student societies failing to receive the support Islamic societies have done, and various speakers being ‘no-platformed’ on campuses across the UK.

Another student challenged the ‘stay’ campaign to justify why students should engage with the NUS when its funds are being spent on “radical actions.” Both Brooks and Tiley admitted the NUS isn’t perfect, but stressed that Exeter students should stay and help reform it. “We’ve got to be in to change it,” Tiley pointed out.

Questions of what would happen after Exeter leaves the NUS were also raised. “The NUS may change, and then we can have the conversation about re-affiliation,” Evans said, adding that an alternative could be to create a new national union to connect students’ voices. “If Exeter left, then of course we’d welcome them back in the future,” Brooks assured the audience.

Further challenges on no-platforming and the NUS voice in UK government rounded off the questions, followed by closing speeches by the panel. You can find the full exchange from the Q&A on the Exeposé Twitter feed from which the debate was live-tweeted.

Speaking to Exeposé after the debate, Brooks said: “I hope we did a good job of articulating why NUS has done a good job for students in the past and why it continues to do so.

“Ultimately I’m really happy to have the debate,” he added. “The only people who lose out if Exeter leaves NUS are Exeter students. I’m happy to argue that, and I think they’re happy to argue the other way!”

“I’m really glad to see so many people engaging,” Tiley said. “It was a really good discussion about loads of different things.”

Evans agreed the debate “provoked interesting conversation” among students – but added: “ultimately the campaign is going to be won on the ground and on social media.”

Exeter’s NUS affiliation vote opened on the Guild website on Monday, and closes at midnight on Thursday 12 May.

>>View original Exeposé News online story>>

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