The occupation on the NUS conference stage. Photo credit: Rebecca Chapman


The National Union of Students conference kicked off in Glasgow last week, with delegates representing students from across the country meeting to review the work of the movement over the last year, decide on priorities and policy and elect the leadership. Around 800 delegates from Higher education, Further Education and Apprentices attended to help set the direction that the National Union of Students will be headed in for the next year.

Arriving at conference you have to wade through numerous campaign teams handing out stickers, flyers and other free things in hope that you will vote for their candidate. Shakira Martin was re-elected as NUS President, against Sahaya James and Momin Saqib. She stated that: “From the classroom to the Cabinet, we are building a real movement”, promising to make NUS “get real on student poverty, getting election ready and student rights.” There were also re-elections in the Vice President roles, with Amatey Doku, Emily Chapman and Ali Milani subsequently being re-elected as VP HE, VP FE and VP Union Development.

There were a wide range of motions discussed – the main priority zone featured Shakira’s ‘Poverty Commission’ in which she wanted to ‘get real’ on student finance. Delegates believed that lobbying the government to not base student finance on parent’s income was essential but was split on the idea of receiving loans early in order to receive financial support during the move to University.

In the Education Zone, motions to help tackle the BME attainment gap, to lobby to provide students free movement during Brexit while safe guarding the Erasmus+ scheme and to campaign for a second referendum on EU membership all passed ( with one delegate highlighting on stage that he is being forced into a future he doesn’t want as he was unable to vote at the time due to his age).

There was also support for creative courses and agreement that NUS will lobby to help reduce audition fees and hidden course costs. A further addition was added for NUS to help lower the cost of graduation, positively received from the floor, with many delegates either being postgraduates having been through the process or those who would be graduating this year. The zone ended with the vast majority supporting postgraduates to have more bursaries and scholarships and NUS will make lobbying for a separate maintenance and tuition loan system for postgraduates a priority for the upcoming year. Other highlights included support for student activism on campuses and to make disability engagement and support in Students’ Unions a priority, as well as tackling mental health from the roots up.

However, despite all of the brilliant motions passed, there seems to be a lot of lying unrest within the membership. During the Welfare Zone, there were accusations of filibustering and stalling to avoid certain motions being heard and, after some confusion about the numbers needed to extend the guillotine time, over 150 students took to the stage to express their anger at motions such as the decriminalisation of sex workers and abortion rights in Northern Ireland not being heard. Protesters chanted “sex work is work” and “solidarity forever” from the stage and after the suspension of the conference, an agreement was made to hold an emergency NEC meeting in which a majority of the members openly spoke to pass these motions.

There appears to be deeper issues at stake. Delegates, both on social media and in person expressed their desire for a change in how the NUS conference works, with some accusations of motions being missed off the priority ballot too. Whether this was a case of poor timing or if there was underlying sabotage, the impact of the protest highlighted the tension between the left and the more centrist sections of the membership (with some delegates suggesting that this was more a battle of factions than with the actual motions themselves) but also, on stage during the occupation, tensions between delegates and the NEC (specifically the NUS officers). (The protest meant that the election results for Vice President Welfare and Vice President Society and Citizenship have been postponed to later this week).

I personally took to the stage as I wanted to show solidarity to the Northern Ireland delegates who had travelled all that way to not be heard. It seems clear that the processes of the conference need looking at: three days is not enough for a union that is gaining in momentum and activism.

For a first time delegate, conference was enjoyable, despite factional clashes and disagreements: ultimately we were all there to help improve the student experience around the UK and if anyone is passionate about student representation and voice NUS is a great way to meet like minded people, pass motions and actions that you think would be best suited to improving student experience and getting a better deal for students.