The impact of NUS’ work is not confined to university campuses. Here, we take a look at the organisation’s influence on the education sector, its benefits for students’ unions and its contribution to wider society.
Impact on the education sector
Any brief history of NUS inevitably focuses on the big-picture politics – in particular the marches against tuition fees, the campaigns for sustainable students’ union funding and NUS’ close association with the feminist, gay rights and anti-racism movements.
All campaigns to be proud of, and part of the rich history of the UK student movement.
But there is a hidden history, a history that is located more in the minutes of meetings than in the pages of the national press.
It is the history of the relationship between NUS and the UK higher education sector.
In the UK we boast a peculiar higher education sector whose hallmarks are consensuality, collegiality and a measured – some might say glacial – pace of change.
Higher education in the UK developed on a principle of institutional autonomy; thus successive governments have evolved a regulatory infrastructure to sustain a balance between public assurance and institutional independence.
It is at this level, somewhere between parliamentary politics and the daily round of institutional governance, that decisions are made, consultations are held and government policy is made operational.
The regulatory infrastructure is complex, in part because of the need to ensure everyone has their say and the needs of all are considered.
That the student body is widely considered to have a stake in, and the right to a say in, the affairs of the higher education sector in the UK may be considered by some to be a historical or cultural accident.
Certainly our colleagues in the higher education sector have no formal mandate to engage with students, nor does NUS have any particularly meaningful chips with which to bargain, other than a certain moral conviction of the importance of student engagement.
It is therefore marvellous to consider the extent to which the student voice is recognised throughout the higher education sector and a real testament to the quality of the partnerships that have developed over the years between NUS and its sector colleagues.
NUS sits on the boards of HEFCE, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OFFA) and UCAS.
Where there is an advisory board, strategic committee or working group, there is NUS, working alongside the sector to present the views of students and ensure their interests are taken into account.
Students are now intimately engaged in every aspect of quality: students act as peer reviewers for institutional review, and students’ unions are invited to submit a student-written submission as part of evidence submitted on the quality of an institution’s provision.
The Quality Assurance Agency has a student sounding board, and is currently funding projects based within NUS to enhance student engagement in quality enhancement at course level.
The Higher Education Academy has worked with NUS for the last two years, undertaking a major project on student engagement – exploring how students can act to shape their educational environment through provision of feedback and representation.
NUS is also working with HEA to deliver student-led teaching awards at institutions around the UK, helping students to recognise excellence in teaching.
NUS is developing its relationship with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Fearful of the impact on students of the new fees and student support regime, NUS successfully worked with OFFA to ensure students’ unions would be consulted in the creation of institutional access agreements.
In 2012, Sir Martin Harris attributed increases in bursary provision to student engagement in access.
It is because of the work of NUS in engaging with partners in the sector, and the willingness of sector partners to work with NUS, that change comes about for students.
In 2009, NUS launched its campaign on improved student feedback, drawing on research and evidence of good practice.
Students’ unions across the UK picked up the baton and argued at institutional level. National Student Survey results for feedback and assessment have increased from 59 per cent in 2005 to 68 per cent in 2011.
It is not, however, merely at the national level that change is effected. Improved understanding of national regulatory systems on the part of students’ union officers and staff has helped students’ unions around the country to work to enhance the quality of their higher education.
Through NUS events, often co-hosted with sector partners, such as the annual Quality Matters event, student representatives have been able to meet, engage with and influence the people whose job it is to keep the system ticking over.
In 2003, NUS Scotland worked with the Scottish tertiary eduction sector bodies, to form the world-leading national development agency for student engagement, sparqs (Student Participation in Quality Scotland).
sparqs works with colleges, universities, students’ associations and sector bodies to empower students to engage through partnership with their institution, and participate in shaping and enhancing their own education.
NUS maintains a consistent flow of information to its student officers, ensuring students’ unions are aware of major sector processes and consultations, and gathering information to support its presentation of the student interest.
NUS shares evidence with students’ unions; it is also a major creator of evidence bases in its own right, publishing a series of major research reports on the student experience, including Meet the Parents (2009), and the more recent Never Too Late to Learn (2012), the latter in partnership with Million+.
Developing informed leaders
What is, perhaps, not perfectly understood by those who do not work closely with NUS is the immense value of an organisation that is expert in supporting meaningful student engagement with a complex regulatory system.
We do not expect the ‘average student’ to have precise and evidenced opinions about the future of risk-based quality, to determine the appropriate income threshold for bursary payments or to research and design a module feedback system.
Any student given the right support could do these things; this is why student officers are elected, trained and supported by NUS and students’ union experts throughout their time in office.
Student opinion is necessarily variable; what makes it meaningful and valuable to the wider sector is the democratic system of student representation and the development of informed student leaders that NUS facilitates.
Impact on students’ unions
Students’ unions in the UK are strong, vibrant organisations where students often realise their true potential while studying.
Whether by getting involved in a sports club or society, by leading a campaign to improve circumstances for themselves and their fellow students, or by getting elected to lead the union as a sabbatical officer, students have been feeling the benefit of getting involved in their students’ union for decades.
And NUS has played a key role in developing, supporting and championing these organisations.
NUS is the epitome of collectivism – a confederation of organisations who themselves are membership-led representative bodies; over 7 million students in higher and further education are members of NUS.
This collectivist approach allows it to drive up standards in students’ unions, sharing best practice around the sector to improve involvement in unions so they can be strong representatives of their members.
In further education NUS has led the development of students’ unions, in many cases creating organisations from nothing that have become strong representative voices for their members.
There have also been challenges to students’ unions over the years which NUS has helped unions to rise to, and gain strength from. In the mid-1980s, the Conservative government tried to kill off students’ unions through changes to the Education Act – but NUS fought that attack, and unions gain their autonomy and strength from that very act now.
Recent changes to the Charities Act mean that students’ unions, previously exempt charities, now have to register as independent charities, and NUS has led this process to help unions become better-governed, stronger organisations, that spend the £91 million of public money given to them through university grants only in ways that will deliver their charitable objectives.
A strong student movement
Whether through creating a discount card (NUS extra), an insurance company to specifically work with students (Endsleigh Insurance) or a £70 million purchasing consortium to collectively stock students’ union shops and bars with the best-quality and priced goods for their members (NUS Services), NUS has consistently sought to find new ways to strengthen the student movement.
The most recent development in this area is the Students’ Union Evaluation Initiative. Established by former students’ union staff members and taken on by NUS, SUEI is a quality mark for unions to improve themselves and, by association, their students’ lives.
NUS and democracy
Students’ unions are where young people find themselves, find their lifelong friends and find their politics.
Voting in students’ union elections exceeds 250,000 each year, and continues to rise, as the voters of tomorrow discover the power of their democratic voice.
NUS oversees the fairness of these elections through guidance and advice – as well as providing returning officers for around 100 students’ unions – and constantly look for new ways to involve students of all demographics in their union’s democracy.
Union trustee boards now contain over 800 student, or student officer, trustees – people developing skills that will benefit the wider voluntary sector when they leave their education behind them.
NUS trains and supports staff and officers in students’ unions across the UK, in further and higher education, to deliver positive impacts for the 7 million people studying here.
Whether campaigning, lobbying or supporting, for over 90 years NUS has played a key role in young people’s lives across the UK.
Impact on wider society
Throughout its history, NUS has sought to change the wider world and the place of students within it.
The organisation was founded as a vehicle to enable international co-operation, while its first-ever research report published in 1937 looked at healthcare provision for students in the days before the NHS catered for all.
In the modern era, this outward-facing tradition remains strong. With our membership comprising millions of students, it’s just as vital that NUS provides a means for our members to influence their communities and wider society for the better.
One particular focus is on improving community relations. In some towns and cities, students form a substantial part of the population, and this can cause tensions – real and imagined.
Students can be blamed for problems not of their own making, so it’s critical that they engage with local authorities and the neighbourhood around them.
NUS is at the forefront of providing guidance and support to students’ unions at a local level; it lobbies and liaises with government and the third sector on national policy and planning law; and it seeks to influence the debate around students and their contribution – economically and otherwise – to towns and cities around the UK.
Environmental concerns have been part of NUS’ work since the 1970s, but in recent years this has become an ever-expanding focus.
NUS’ Green Impact project, encouraging environmentally friendly practices among students, in students’ unions and in colleges and universities, is now so successful it is expanding into hospitals, fire stations, and small and medium enterprises.
Collaboration for social good
In 1987, NUS’ ‘Boerclaybank’ campaign lobbied Barclays Bank to withdraw from South Africa, resulting in a significant step towards the ending of apartheid.
More recently, NUS’ focus on student housing has seen the introduction of tenancy deposit protection schemes in England, Wales and Scotland, offering protection from exploitation and mistreatment to vulnerable members of society.
In recent years, NUS has worked with many corporations – most notably Coca-Cola – to address ethical practices through its constructive engagement scheme.
The aim of the scheme is to facilitate transparency in the commercial relationship between supplier and stakeholder, ensuring the potential for value alignment and clarity of choice within commercial partnerships.
The organisation is currently undertaking a stringent brand review and is solidifying its identity in an ever-changing society in order to reach its key stakeholders with a clear and resounding message.
Part of this work has seen NUS team up with BBC Children in Need and the National Student Fundraising Association (NaSFA) to support the development of student fundraising groups.
This work and much more will continue, whether it’s encouraging student participation in the upcoming police and crime commissioner elections, fighting for an end to exploitative unpaid internships, or campaigning for institutions to pay staff at least a living wage, there is always more to do.
Students make an incredibly positive contribution to the world around them, and NUS is proud to support their activities.