Leaked: NUS internal report exposes undemocratic structures

Edd Bauer NUS Trustee


Two of the most inspiring and important speeches I watched at the recent National Union of Students (NUS) Annual Conference was Naomi Beecroft & Sam Gaus speaking for the Inanimate Carbon Rod. These speeches although treated by many as joke are in fact heartfelt pleas for a very different union. Many are unaware that the organisation is no longer democratic. Mandates passed at conference to fight for free education, stand up for liberation campaigns, organise FE student walkouts are ignored in favour of corporate targets set behind the scenes. These corporate targets are not even working in favour of students’ needs, rather the needs of the bureaucracy. 

Too often governance of the NUS is hidden and in protest as a trustee of the NUS I’m leaking this document (also can be found embedded at end of this report), which shows the undemocratic ways in which the NUS’s priorities are decided. Key targets are being set to meet the needs of a increasing managerial bureaucracy  by the unelected trustee board 

The student movement is being pulled in two different directions: there are the needs and desires of the students on the one hand, and the needs and desires of (for want of a better word)the bureaucracy” on the other. The student movement has a huge bureaucracy attached. Not only is the NUS a large institution with 220 staff, £15m turnover and a Chief Executive on £100k p/a, but many of its member student unions – especially those within the Russell Group & 1994 group – have grown similar size bureaucracies. Many local SUs employ 400 staff each and have turnovers of between £5-10m p/a. Add to this dozens of smaller students’ unions (all of them providing welfare services, leisure activities, bars and political representation to the student body) and you have a huge third sector industry in which thousands of people work and hundreds of professionals make lifelong careers as student union managers and executives.

The undemocratic system of strategic planing.

This layer of student union managers and executives are knowledgeable and, importantly, around for the long term (longer than most student activists are at university for). Due to this, they have become undeniably influential. By virtue of that influence within, they set the agenda within the NUS (a body which depends on local student unions for funding and legitimacy).

The NUS suffered a disaffiliation crisis in the early noughties with dozens of big unions leaving it, and joining a high profile ‘NO2NUS’ campaign. To avoid a repeat of this in its own words it has “professionalised” and set itself KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) which are monitored through the unelected non-student Trustee Board to ensure that a crisis like this does not take place again. Central to these is the “Satisfaction” KPI (targeted at 80%) and the “Value For Money” (target 55%).

From the NUS’s perspective keeping student union managers happy is a key goal. For, despite the fact that these positions are supposedly apolitical, it would not be surprising if (within this group of managers) the NUS became perceived negatively, and that the rate of disaffiliations would thus increase. If staff members with the ear of full-time student sabbatical officers and student activists across the country gave disaffiliation proposals ‘the nod’, it probably wouldn’t bode well for the NUS.

As such, in ascertaining how the NUS is perceived and if the NUS has achieved its perception KPIs, the NUS also surveys student union managerial staff. In fact in the annual members perception survey student union staff were the single largest group of respondents 48% (n=208) of the total; student officers 39% (n=168); full-time (sabbatical officers) 24% (n=105); part-time (student officers) 15% (n=63).

From the results, it can be seen that if the NUS is to meet its KPI of having an overall satisfaction rating of 80% from student union staff and students, then it has to contend with the problematic fact that these different groups have different expectations of the NUS.

To work out what it should do to earn a satisfaction rating of 80%, the NUS poses to SU managers and SU student officers a series of phrases including: “democratic”, “campaigning”, “ethical”, “professional”, “supportive”, “cost effective”, “valuing equality”, “collectivist”, “measured”, “rebellious”, “relevant”, “traditional”, “divided”. It then asks the degree to which these phrases are associated with their satisfaction with the NUS, and then the degree to which they associate the word with the NUS.

So for example “rebellious” gets a 9% positive association but only 19% of people associate it with the NUS, while “traditional” garners a 12% negative association and 41% of people associate it with the NUS. “Supportive” gets 63% for both positive association and association with the NUS. The NUS’s methodology for enacting this data is supposedly that if an item has association above 60% positive then its correlation is strong enough to be worth pursuing, and if it could be more associated with the NUS then it could push satisfaction up.

From the most recent survey two target areas were identified “There are two attributes that have a clear relationship with overall satisfaction (correlation of over 0.60), that actually are showing room for improvement in terms of association: ‘supportive’ and ‘achieving’. Associations with ‘supportive’ are there at 63% however they could be dialled up. This was covered somewhat in section 4.5. Satisfaction with direct support. ‘Achieving’ perceptions are around half (53%). Publishing NUS wins more widely could go some way to improving this score”. So according to the survey at glance, what is needed is more comforting glossy leaflets explaining all the good things the NUS has done and all the good services the NUS can do for students’ unions. To anyone who has seen the increasingly glossy produce of the NUS in recent years this might not seem surprising.

This overall picture of positive/negative associations and degree of association with the NUS can be seen below.



This, however, is the picture of student officer and SU manager combined when these data sets are split up the picture becomes more interesting and complex.


here is the breakdown for SU staff.

NUS perception staff

here is the graph for Full-Time Sabbatical Officers.

NUS perception sabbs


here is the Part-Time Non-Sabbatical Officers graph.

NUS perception non sabbs


I’m sure people can take what they want out of these graphs. However, I think the important thing to note is that there is a very significant difference in terms of the positive association of student officers (part-time and full-time) and that of SU staff. To list a few, while “rebellious” registers a 0% correlation with satisfaction amongst SU managers, it registers a 20% positive rating amongst non-sabbatical officers and 10% positive rating amongst sabbatical officers. For SU Managers, the phrases “democratic” and “campaigning” only score +15%, whereas amongst students it gets between +55-60%.

For SU managers, the top 5 phrases that are most positively associated are “professional” “achieving”, “supportive” “effective/cost effective” and “efficient”.

For student officers (part-time and full-time) the top 5 are “campaigning”, “democratic”, “achieving”, “approachable” and “supportive”.

The needs of students activists vs the demands of the bureaucracy

The demands and needs of the students active within the NUS by and large tend towards a desire to see a democratic and campaigning union. For NUS to campaign hard and to be democratic is a proposal that sounds very attractive to most students, however it is not a vision that we will see enacted while the NUS undemocratically works to meet the demands of the bureaucracy. The SU bureaucracy doesn’t seek democracy and campaigns, it seeks a more cost effective and professional NUS.

When membership at conference calls a national demonstration against the scrapping of EMA, £9k tuition fees and education cuts, instead of putting large amounts of funding into our clear political message which people can rally behind, the NUS bureaucracy creates a bland and inoffensive corporate message “Educate, Empower, Employ”; a message so bland that it can please student union managers and bosses and some students, who see it as an respectable campaign that is not “too political”. However these messages designed for a professional SU bureaucracy are deeply out of touch with students looking for a clear political message and campaign from the NUS.

Part of the problem is that by seeking “satisfaction” rather than aiming for tangible gains for the student body (like reducing fees, for example) the system is producing Orwellian answers and ‘solutions. For example, in response to low satisfaction for “support” from the NUS, the report recommends that “it can be deduced that improved training will increase overall loyalty and contentment” . Student organisations should not be asking themselves how they can best produce “loyalty and contentment” towards themselves from students and staff, but rather how training can help equip activists to take on the government and college/university bosses when they are destroying opportunities for young people.

We have come to a point in the NUS where the bureaucracy is so powerful that it straddles the movement, stifling it. The needs of students for a genuinely effective, democratic fighting force are replaced by the desires of the bureaucracy to have a professional and costeffective organisation. Its all very well having professional and costeffective organisation, but what is the point if this professional and costeffective organisation doesn’t achieve tangible gains? The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy…” comes to mind; or the more accurate adaptationThe bureaucracy is professionalising to meet the needs of the professionalised bureaucracy.”

There are some activists now in the NUS fighting to democratise the organisation, but they face a mammoth  task against deeply entrenched interests.  In the long-term it may well be impossible for the NUS to be reclaimed, but dynamic organisations like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which fight unconstrained by entrenched bureaucracies using more democratic and student-led methods of organising, may well have the capacity to replace it.

NUS Member Perception by Edward Bauer

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