The National Union of Students (NUS) is facing bankruptcy, according to a letter recently sent from its national executive to affiliated student unions. Shakira Martin and Peter Robinson, President and Chief Executive of the NUS, claim that the NUS is projecting a £3m deficit which it will be unable to afford. This will entail a reduction in NUS staff and wages and cause the activities the NUS offers students to be cut down.

This is no great surprise: already in 2005 the NUS was facing a £700,000 deficit, and little has been done since then to improve the situation. This problem is directly linked to the NUS’s lack of relevance to the lives of many students.

Many of the Marxist candidates standing for NUS conference delegate positions this year already noted just how little students seemed to care about the NUS. A large proportion did not even know what the NUS was. At UCL, a university of 40,000+ students, only a few dozen participate in the NUS delegate elections each year, a trend that repeats itself throughout many universities.

According to Martin and Robinson, the cause of the NUS deficit is the competition from other companies that offer student discount deals. This sums up the wrong-headed approach of the NUS leaders. A student union’s survival shouldn’t be about how well it can compete with big business, but about how well it can fight for students’ interests.

As much as the NUS leaders may call “TOTUM” – their student discount card – a “revolutionary service”, it hardly enthuses students about the NUS. A 10 or 15% discount in certain shops might be of some help to struggling students, but it’s not an effective answer to the tripling of tuition fees since 2012, the gradual loss of living grants in the last few decades, the rise in rent, the transformation of stable jobs into precarious employment, and everything else that students today are struggling with. Instead of waging a serious struggle in these areas on behalf of students, the NUS leaders are fixated on doing petty deals with big business.

Is it any wonder then that there has been a recent wave of student union disaffiliation from the NUS? Referenda have been held on this issue all around the country, including Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, King’s London and UCL. Some have been successful, starting with Lincoln, Newcastle and Hull in 2016, others have come very close, as in Warwick, Oxford and Cambridge. Those who argue for disaffiliation claim that they could keep more money for their local student unions: and indeed why would they feel strongly about contributing financially to the NUS if it doesn’t appear to do anything for them?

Disaffiliation from the NUS puts enormous holes in the budget. And the threat of disaffiliation means that the NUS will find it very hard to increase affiliation fees to cover the deficit.

The only way that the NUS can solve its financial problems in a sustainable way is to convince its members to increase their contributions, and to sign up and create new student unions in schools, colleges and universities.

This, in turn, can only be done by gaining the trust and respect of students by becoming a fighting union that unites students with workers to fight for free education, decent healthcare, and a better standard of living for all. That’s why Marxist delegates to the NUS conference this year will be arguing for bold socialist policies for the NUS.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader led to the wiping out of the party’s debt, because his socialist policies enthused millions of people to join the party and contribute financially. The NUS leaders must learn from this. Students don’t want the crumbs of student discounts, they want the whole bakery: an end to tuition fees, landlordism, and precarious work. Only by proving that it can seriously fight for these demands can the NUS get out of this crisis.

by Nick Oung, UCL NUS delegate 2019

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