Free Education

This year at National Conference, ‘free’ education – and not any form of fees or a graduate tax – was adopted as NUS policy.

I was one of the many members of the NEC to vote against it, for a variety of reasons including the fact that I don’t see Higher Education (along with all non-compulsory education) of having a purely social value – there is a private benefit, which I think the beneficiary should pay for.

I’ve been a pendulum on this issue – swinging back and forth many a time. In 2010, during my first term of my first year, I remember joining in a public debate on the pro-side of the tuition fee changes (mostly for devil’s advocate reasons), before being outraged at the 90% cut that then followed on the public teaching grant. I was never outraged enough to go to Millbank in 2010 and watched the vote on Parliament Channel with indifference, but I went on a local demo in Newcastle. I was so incensed by the Browne review’s dismissive attitude to postgraduate education that I pushed doing something about it into national NUS policy.

I would just want to say one thing about the debate which was otherwise free, frank and fair – Scotland does not have free education. It is true, if you live in Gretna Green, that if you go to Glasgow Uni, you won’t pay a penny in tuition, but if you live 20 minutes down the road in Carlisle, it’ll cost you £9,000 to study there. Milking the 85% of the UK population who live in England to fund your universities does not make it ‘free education’.

There’s an idea in politics called ‘the Overton window’. This is the idea that there is a fixed range of discussion which is ‘realistic’ or acceptable. If ideas are proposed outside this window, then they are dismissed out-of-hand for being fanciful. It’s interesting to consider how much of my politics is down to my view of the Overton window, and how much down to principle.

Watching Question Time the day Conference finished, I was struck by how on discussion of higher education, literally no-one was suggesting that HE should be free – even Billy Bragg was basically calling for a reversal of the system to the 2006 set-up. Perhaps the reason why Free Education gets no serious consideration in the public sphere is because the ‘right’ people don’t advocate it (and thus it remains outside of the overton window).

Anyhow, I’ve crunched some of the numbers to show how much of a fundamental change to government spending. Personally, I am tempted to spend the cost of free education on other things, but each to their own I guess.

Free Education – the numbers

First off, the current crisis of arithmetic:

  • Free Education (ie the abolition of tuition fees) will cost about £15.5bn* each year, assuming current student levels.
  • If you follow the government’s current policy that 60,000 more students will attend University (under plans to lift the student numbers cap) then the cost will rise to £16.8bn.
  • The government intends to cut (under current spending plans, which Labour have announced they will stick to) public expenditure (excluding Health, Schools and International Development) by 1.2% of GDP, or £18.6bn over the next two years to 2015/16. Beyond that, assuming current ring-fences will still exist, unprotected spending will fall by 4.6% of GDP, or £75.6bn.
  • You therefore have a crisis of arithmetic – overall spending has to fall by £18.6bn over the next two years, but you want to increase spending on HE by £15.5bn (or more) per year.

The  solutions proposed to fund Free Education were to tax the rich by increasing income tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax for the richest, by reducing tax evasion and by ‘taking the banks and their wealth into democratic control’.

  • Banks first. It should be obvious that this is a complete non-starter (a polite way of saying ‘total bollocks’). You can’t take the wealth of the banks without compensating the shareholders – else this is simply state-sponsored theft, and totally illegal. Nor would you want to, as the majority of shareholdings are not held by aristocrats or fat-cats but by trustee funds of many businesses and local authorities, paying the pensions of thousands of office workers, cleaners and librarians.
  • Increasing income tax to 50% is estimated to raise about £1.1bn more than at 40%. Beyond that, the effects of reducing productive activity through disincentives, people moving to more favourable tax regimes or by converting the type of income means that you start getting less back. Best estimates place the revenue maximising top tax rate somewhere between 33% and 57%. The government claimed in 2012 cutting the top rate of tax to 45% from 50% would cost only £0.1bn due to these behavioural effects.
  • Before the Labour government bowed to enormous pressure in 2007 and introduced a transferable couples inheritance relief, about 6% of the population paid inheritance tax: now it is about 4%. Reversing this relief might raise about £1bn. However, Inheritance tax is spectacularly easy to avoid paying, mostly thanks to generous rules written into the tax code (give it all to your spouse, for instance, or to charity and you’re fine, or just transfer it to a family trust seven years before you die). Additionally, thanks to the recession, annual revenues have fallen to about £3.3bn from IHT.
  • Capital gains tax raised about £3.9bn in 2012/13. When George Osborne raised the top rate of CGT to 28% from 18% in 2010, this increase revenues by about £1bn. Analysis produced at the time showed that this would not produce any more revenue, as the same diminishing effects mentioned kick in.
  • Using reductions in tax evasion and avoidance to fund revenues is like building a space station out of gingerbread: thoroughly unreliable. For example, a treaty with Switzerland to share information was estimated to raise £3bn in new revenue, but in the end it raised only £0.8bn. Additionally, much of tax ‘avoidance’ is just a normal reaction to the tax system – I can avoid paying tax by donating to charity (it’s called gift aid). HM Revenue and Customs placed the ‘tax gap’ at £35bn in 11/12, of which £9.1bn was due to combined evasion and avoidance, the rest being down to things like the shadow economy and criminal behaviour.
  • Therefore, we can raise up to £1bn by raising top tax rates and£1bn by reversing IHT allowance changes. We could even throw in another £1bn per year from scrapping the Trident upgrades if you fancy. We’re still about £12bn short, ie the same amount as the Environment, Energy, Culture, Transport and Foreign Office budgets combined.

So this is where it gets real. We need to find £12bn to increase (bear in mind total HE spending in 12/13 was £5.8bn) at a time when £19bn has to be cut from the overall budget in the next 2 years. Broadly, we can either increase taxes or cut spending. It’s likely a bit of both would happen.

Other departments would likely argue for cuts to the BIS budget (which has responsibility for HE), for example:

  • To reduce the cost of free education, student numbers could be cut – reducing them by 100,000 would save £2.3bn
  • Cutting Science and Technology research by 25% would save £1.4bn
  • Student maintenance grants could be converted to loans – saving £1.5bn
  • Total: £6.2bn saving. There is also the potential to save money from the £3.9bn spent on FE

In terms of tax rises, there are many possible ways of increasing revenue, for example:

  • Cancelling the cuts in corporation tax announced in the 2010 budget would raise £3.4bn
  • Cancelling the rise in the personal threshold to £10,000 would raise £3.9bn
  • Cancelling the government’s National Insurance cut  on secondary allowances would raise £3.7bn
  • Total raised: £11bn.

The two add up to about £17.2bn, so we’ve clearly got room to ease off a fair bit.

What might be more interesting to pursue would be a major reform of income tax – increasing the number of bands – to reflect the shift of HE funding from a graduate tax to income tax.

So it’s not infeasible to fund Free Education – it’s just going to require a significant re-alignment of the budget, and perhaps some unfair and unjust cutbacks to highly valuable areas of spending. Of course, this is only one example of how to raise the money realistically – just with such a big change to the overall budget (a 3% overall shift), you have to look at where you might raise taxes or cut spending.

* There are 666,165 first year undergraduates currently enrolled at UK Universities. The average cost of a degree (from arts to medicine) is assumed to be £7,500 per year. Assume 10% of degrees include a 4th year (eg year out or UG masters), so the average degree lasts 3.1 years. The three multiplied together comes to £15.488bn. This may be an overestimate – I’m finding it hard to find the average cost of degrees from anywhere.

Thoughts on protesting

On Jan 29th, a protest was held at Birmingham University. While reports differ, the basic outline of events is: people (not necessarily all students) gather at the Uni, try to occupy some buildings (and partially succeed), graffiti the place, allegedly release some smokebombs and eventually get allegedly kettled before being released a few hours later.

Now a number of protesters have been arrested and others charged with actually quite serious criminal offences. Meanwhile the police have been accused of using illegal tactics. The wider student body is seething because they’ve seen their own campus vandalised, and the students’ union is fed up that it has had to postpone its student activities fair because of the action.

All in all, a bit of a mess. Everyone, from the protesters, to the University, to the students’ union, are very angry. So how did we get into this lose-lose situation?

Well, we all have a right to protest. It’s one of the most important rights there are in a democratic society. But like all rights, including our human rights, they are qualified rights. You don’t have the right to protest by causing an explosion. Or by smashing a window. Or by punching someone in the face. Or by waving banners with racist remarks. Those are all rightly criminal acts, and it is the job of the police to investigate these crimes.

(In fact, the police cannot arrest anyone merely for being on protest. However some Universities have taken out injunctions, or court orders, banning protests on their campuses. If those court orders are broken, the police can be called to enforce them).

So we all have a right to protest, but not an unlimited right. Our personal behaviour will affect whether we are entitled to continue to protest. As Spiderman might have said, “with great rights, comes great responsibility”.

What happened at Birmingham is all about personal responsibility, or rather, the inability of some people to take responsibility for any of their actions.

For example, was it really necessary to dress up like terrorist hijackers, in black from head-to-toe, with a balaclava over your face and sunglasses over your eyes? Was it really necessary to storm a building? Was it really necessary to graffiti walls with incoherent slogans?

I would say the answer is a definitive no. After all, what’s wrong with a candlelight vigil? The best protests are those done with humour and politeness – case in point was the protest against fingerprint scanning on campus at Newcastle, where students set up a ‘checkpoint’ outside the University head office and asked management if they would like to register their attendance.

I have been on many protests during my time in the student movement, ranging from the tuition fee protests in Newcastle, to the Save the NHS Demo in Manchester. I have never broken into a building. I have never used aggressive or violent behaviour. I have never done anything other than what I came to do: turn up, make my point, and go home.

Perhaps consequently, I have never been arrested, kettled, or treated with anything other than the utmost courtesy and respect by the police. On the notoriously rubbish #demo2012, most my time on the leg from Parliament to Kennington was spent chatting to a policemen about the challenges faced in policing large protests. So I find it quite hard to comprehend how people get into these situations.

And it’s not just me: NUS and students’ unions holds numerous protests each year, and these pass trouble free. Dozens of “reclaim the night” marches have happened without incident. Only today, the LGBT campaign happily held a “Sports Gay” protest outside the Russian Embassy. Nothing remotely of the sort that happened at Birmingham occurred there.

Why? Because all these protests were conducted responsibly.

I know I don’t agree with everything the protesters at Birmingham were asking for, so I did a thought experiment: what if this were a bunch of public school rugby club lads? Or the UKIP youth branch? The BNP? I know what I’d be thinking if any of those groups caused half as much trouble as the on-trend lefties did at Birmingham: something along the lines of ‘give them what they deserve’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the people who were associated with the protest have been criticising the students’ union and the university for not doing enough to defend them from what ultimately is the consequence of their own actions.

Some of that is down to gross intellectual dishonesty, a failure to police within these groups and call each other out for going too far. Perhaps some of the reason why the organised left has so few successes is because, without the ability to play the victim card, the justification of many of these actions would cease to exist.

But the attacks on the Birmingham Guild of Students got me thinking. What sort of organisation invades your campus, causes damage and upset, and then demands unlimited and unconditional support from you? What sort of organism invades your body, makes you ill, and lives off your blood?

I remember: a parasite.

NEC updates and PDC files

I promised I would write an update after every NEC meeting explaining what had happened. Well, that pipe dream died a sad death as soon as I started a full-time job where I wasn’t allowed to even talk about this work. I guess someone should really hold me to account about that.

Anyhow, the minutes that NUS are now producing are pretty excellent, with lots of ‘colour’, so I don’t think I really need to write many reports – perhaps the odd explainer now and then on a massively controversial issue. Then again, we haven’t had many of those, except perhaps the political flash-in-a-pan of UK military intervention in Syria – which was the NEC’s flirtation with being the UN Security Council.

Tomorrow I travel to Coventry, to the new-fangled “Policy Development Convention”. A friend semi-accidentally dubbed it the ‘Policy Compilation’, and I now have this malapropism stuck in my head. What it’s meant to be doing, I have no idea. It’s not a body with formal decision-making powers and so few people have a clue about the second day that even the agenda cops out with “NEC activity happening in parallel”. The whole event has the whiff of a half-baked gorgonzola cheesecake: something’s definitely going wrong there.

We’re meant to be discussing several “work-plans”, which epitomising the rather rushed and not-quite-thought-through nature of the whole event, were emailed to us just over 12 hours before the event is meant to happen. Apparently we’re meant to be debating them. Or something. And the ultra-keen will get to listen live on the NUS website, as if the whole thing were one giant version of “Any Questions”.

Overall I remain a sceptic of this event (can you tell?), but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

For the sake of transparency, here are all the documents we’ve been sent. If you want me to raise anything on your behalf, email me (charles dot barry at nus dot org dot uk) or contact me on twitter – I’ll be live-tweeting the whole event, or profoundly drunk, or both.

NB  KTR means Key Theme Report. I can’t be bothered writing that out over and over again.

NEC Papers 17/09/13

My apologies that I was unable to put these up before the meeting, however hopefully they will provide a reference to all.

These papers contain:

  • The Agenda for this meeting (page 2)
  • Minutes of the previous meeting (pages 3-14)
  • Reports of the President and Vice Presidents (pages 15-30)
  • Reports of the Liberation and Nations Officers (pages 32-44)
  • Minutes of the most recent Trustee Board meeting (pages 45-47)
  • Paper on review of the Officer Development Programme (pages 48-50)
  • Paper on NUS London (pages 51-57)
  • Remit and Activity Statement for NUS Charitable Services (pages 58-59)
  • Allocation of Political Budgets 2013/14 (pages 60-63)
  • Workplans for Zones and Liberation Campaigns (pages 64-99)
  • Motions (pages 101-116)
  • Block allocations (pages 117-118)

Click to download

NEC Meeting, 15th July ’13

Present: Toni Pearce, Joe Vinson, Rachel Wenstone, Dom Anderson, Raechel Mattey, Maggie Hayes, Colum McGuire,  Aaron Kiely, Malia Bouattia, Hannah Patterson, Jawanza Ipyana, Sky Yartlett, Finn McGoldrick, Kelley Temple, Daniel Stevens, Arianna Tassinari, Josh Rowlands, Emma Barnes, Anna Chowcat, Amy Gilligan, Stephanie Lloyd, Rhiannon Hedge, Gordon Maloney, Robert Foster, Fergal McFerran, Rosie Huzzard, Rhiannon Durrans, Harry Fox, Matt Stanley, James McAsh, Paul Abernethy, Charles Barry, Chris Clements, Jessica Goldstone, Peter Smallwood, Marc McCorkell

Observing: Stacey Devine, Georgie Court, Matthew Tennant.

Not attending: Charlotte Knight, Rachael Thornton, Tabz O’Brien-Butcher, Rebecca Hall, Jeni-Marie Pittuck, Ben Dilks, Edmund Schluessel, Kirat Raj Singh

Induction training for the incoming NEC members was provided before the meeting started.

The meeting was opened by Toni Pearce at 11:30am.

Accountability

After the initial formalities of approving the minutes, we moved in to the accountability section.

This was slightly different to normal NEC meetings, because as it was the beginning of the year there were no reports. Instead the Zones, Nations, Liberation and Sections Officers fed back on what their priorities for the year were, and then the rest of the NEC asked questions about these plans.

Additionally because Block allocations to member Unions had not been made, there were no reports from the Block with membership feedback.

I didn’t make comprehensive notes of every campaign’s priorities, in fact I know that I forgot to write anything down at all about what NUS Wales or the Black Students Campaign were going to be doing, but here goes a quick summary of what was said:

  • HE Zone (Rachel Wenstone): student rights and protections, democratic institutions, arts, placements, access, postgraduate funding
  • FE Zone (Joe Vinson): GCSE changes, curriculum, review of vocational education, FE funding
  • UD Zone (Rachael Mattey): making democracy work for students (not the other way round), private providers, utilising student activities
  • Welfare Zone (Colum McGuire): homes fit for study, making the case for welfare, health and NHS, local public services
  • Soc and Cit Zone (Dom Anderson): General Election, employment rights, votes at 16, Ethics and Environment, Free Maxwell
  • Women’s Campaign (Kelley Temple): Women in leadership, student carers, lad culture, regional forums
  • Disabled Students (Hannah Patterson): Disability living allowance, anti-cuts, anti-atos, real change for SU representation
  • LGBT Campaign (Sky Yarlett and Finn McGoldrick): anti-homophobic bullying, data on LGBT students, out in sport, trans students, activist training
  • International Students (Daniel Stevens): anti-immigration restrictions, fixed fees, linking internationall students more into NUS
  • NUS Scotland (Gordon Maloney): free education, moving away from loans towards grants, widening access, housing, university governance

Preliminary items

The next items of business were several items that have to be sorted at the beginning of the year. These were approving the NEC Rules (Standing Orders), agreeing to the list of Presidential appointments and agreeing the cycle of business for the upcoming year. These were all agreed unanimously. The first draft of detailed budgets were shown to the NEC.

We also held elections for the NEC Clerks and for the Nominations Committee (the one that appoints trustees). Jawanaza Ipyana and Jess Goldstone managed to successfully beat RON for the two positions on the Nominations Committee.

The election for NEC Clerks (similar to a mini Steering Committee) was a close-run contest, with the three candidates for the two places being me, Ben Dilks and James McAsh. The result was:

Round 1 – Ben Dilks 12, Charles Barry 10, James McAsh 10, RON 1; Round 2 – Ben Dilks 12, James McAsh 11, Charles Barry 10.

Naturally, I was a bit disappointed to have lost by such a close margin, but I’m sure Ben and James will do a fine job in this role.

Policy

View the completed policy that was passed at this NEC meeting

Motion 1 – Migration

The NEC had a suprisingly large amount of policy to discuss at this meeting – considering this is the “bedding in” meeting where everyone finds their feet.

First up was a motion submitted by Edmund Schleussel on current migration rules. The real irony of the motion was that Edmund, an international postgraduate student from the USA, was unable to attend the meeting to propose his motion. The UK Border Agency had ordered him to return to the USA and reapply for a new visa for the coming year.

There were two amendments, both which were simple “add” amendments and which were considered as ‘friendly’ . They were both consolidated into the motion without much debate. I voted for both amendments.

There were then two requests to delete parts of the original motion. The first part was Resolves 5 and 6. It was argued that this language, which mentioned NUS refusing to support certain political parties if they backed cuts, austerity or increased migration restrictions, was unnecessary and potentially compromised the ability of NUS to be neutral between political parties.

It was argued back that a refusal to support any party is in no way the same as supporting other parties. The part was removed, by a fairly close result: 17 to remove, 11 to keep. I abstained on this vote because while I thought it was an overly broad and not particularly well written part of the motion, I did not accept the logic that it made NUS support particular political parties.

The second part was Resolves 7, which said NUS would support protests against migration rules and offered congratulations to those who had protested against UKIP. It was argued we should remove this part for two reasons, firstly, because it embodied support for an outdated ‘macho politics’ which prioritised shouting above discussion, and secondly that it again compromised the idea of NUS as a neutral body with respect to political parties. It was argued back that demonstrating is not ‘macho politics’, it is a common political tactic, that the demonstrations focus on migration rules, not particular parties, and that UKIP constitute a political body which has no desire to advance the rights of students and so protesting against them is a legitimate tactic.

The part was removed. This vote was the closest of the entire meeting, with 15 voting to remove and 13 voting to keep. I voted to keep the parts for two reasons, firstly, I feel that NUS shouldn’t be disapproving of peaceful protests by students, and secondly I don’t believe that protesting against the policies of a political party means that you are no longer party-political neutral.

The motion with these changes was passed unanimously.

Motion 2: Migration affiliations

This motion called for NUS to affiliate to two organisations, the Migrants Rights Network and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. After being introduced by Daniel Stevens, this motion was passed unanimously without further debate.

Motion 3: Anti-racism, anti-fascism

Hotly anticipated after May’s débacle, there were two motions on this topic – one submitted by Dom Anderson, the other submitted by Rosie Huzzard. These were combined so that the second motion became one massive amendment.

At this point I got a bit distracted and lost track of what was going on, so this may not be a totally accurate version of events on this motion.

There were two parts requests on this amendment: to delete bullet 2 of Further Believes 1 and to delete bullet 3 of Further Believes 3.

The first of these (bullet 2) was to delete one line which criticised the organisation Unite Against Facism for its failure to “militantly oppose the far right in the streets”. The debate on this, obviously, centred around whether ‘militant’ action is the sort of thing that NUS wants to be involved with. Those critical of this part said it represents a form of ‘macho’ male-dominated politics which is not what NUS should be involved with, and the word ‘militant’ implies violent action, which NUS should also not support. Those who defended the part argued it was not about violent protests, but about being strong-willed. In the end this part was removed (I voted to remove).

The second part was a debate on tactics. The line said that we supported ‘driving fascists off the streets’, instead of calling for state bans. Those calling to remove this part argued that state bans were an effective part of combating extremist behaviour and that to retain this part would undermine NUS’s long-standing No Platform policy. Those calling to retain this part said that was not the case, No Platform could be maintained in the absence of state bans, and anyway, state bans did not solve the underlying cause of extremist behaviour and allowed extremists to play the ‘victim card’. This part was eventually removed, however I can’t remember for the life of me how I voted (I think I abstained).

This amendment was then bizarrely voted on in a recorded vote, in which all but (I think) two members of the NEC voted to include this into the main policy text. I say this seemed bizarre because while there are no secret votes at the NEC, the minutes normally do not show who voted which way, unless a NEC member requests it. Mostly only the more controversial and closely-fought motions receive a recorded vote, so it was unusual to see a recorded vote on such an uncontroversial amendment.

There was another amendment, which was promptly included in the main motion, and then finally the motion was voted through unanimously.

Opponents of No Platform should take note – the NEC passed unanimously the part which said: “To campaign for no platform for fascists within NUS or in our Students’ Unions”.

Motion 4: Councillors against the cuts

This motion was short and simple – it wanted NUS to sign up to the principles of a group called “Councillors against the Cuts” (CAC) and lend its support to this organisation’s aims.

I can’t remember how the debate went (more problems of doing this writeup a month late), but the end result was that the motion fell.

I voted against the motion. The reasons for this are simple: CAC is an organisation dedicated to one tactic, which I think is a silly tactic that will do no good and will cause potentially great harm. Hence even though I might agree with the overall aims of CAC, I can’t possibly agree with their tactics. For those of you who don’t know, CAC argues that Councillors should refuse to “implement cuts” (ie the fact they have less money than the year before) by refusing to set a budget. CAC hopes that this will create a ‘wave of resistance’ or something, and this will prevent cuts from happening.

To me this sounds like that episode of South Park with the gnomes (clip). Firstly, the tactic doesn’t make any coherent sense: it is central government who have cut local government budgets, so the cuts have happened to councils whether they like it or not. To refuse to “implement cuts” by not spending money makes as much sense as saying I will refuse to “implement punctures” by continuing to drive on flat tires.

Secondly, I am deeply uneasy about the idea that we should use maladministration as a tactic. If we disagree with central government cuts it is at the ballot box and in the Commons where we should fight back. Abandoning public services at a local level as a political weapon and imperilling the livelihood of Council employees is neglectful, reckless and immoral. I watched the debate in detail earlier this year in Newcastle and I was dismayed at the inability of those pushing to implement these tactics to comprehend the highly risky nature of their tactics.

Motion 5: Expropriate the banks

A motion was put to National Conference 2013, which due to lack of time was passed to the NEC to decide. At the NEC, it was passed ‘on the nod’ unanimously. This Conference motion included a demand to expropriate banks and use this to expand the public sector. This motion was proposed to give teeth to that motion by setting this as a campaign for the year.

There were some claims that by refusing to implement this motion, we would be going against the mandate of Conference. I can’t see this myself, seeing as 1) the policy was passed by the NEC, 2) the NEC doesn’t have the same legitimacy as National Conference, 3) it was one vaguely written line in a motion on child poverty, and 4) the motion gave no instructions to actually do anything.

The motion was opposed on the grounds that supporting bank expropriation is not a priority for either students generally nor for the Society and Citizenship Zone. Dom Anderson had mentioned earlier in the accountability section that when compared to the issue of student employability, bank expropriation rates very low in his opinion.

Eventually this motion was consigned to the NEC dustbin. I voted against the motion for two main reasons. First, NUS is the National Union of Students, not the Campaign for Renationalisation or the Institute for Economic Policy. I do accept the point that students are part of society and so we can campaign to change society in any way we want. But ask any student what part of society they would want to change and I can think of 10 maybe even 20 other aspects that they would say could probably do with being changed first.

The second reason is that though I may find the excessively high remuneration of bankers distasteful, I do not believe expropriation (as I understood it, nationalisation without compensation) is a good economic policy to be proposing.

Motion 6: Defend the NHS

This motion as originally proposed asked to do 3 things. One, to publicise and financially support (with a £250 donation no less) a conference being held at ULU this November on NHS changes. Two, to support a demonstration being held outside Conservative Party Conference. Three, to support a statement of 10 demands towards the Labour Party by Hull North CLP (Constituency Labour Party).

There were two amendments to this motion, both add amendments. The first was to oppose the introduction of charges on international students, the second made a minor change to the statement of beliefs. Both were accepted unanimously.

We then returned to the main motion where there were two requests to take parts. The first was to remove Resolves 1 and 3 of the original motion, ie the bits about supporting the conference and Hull North CLP. It was argued that NUS are not the Labour Party, so why should we be getting involved in their internal politicking – we would not be doing the same inside Conservative Party conference. In response it was argued that we need to influence national policy in the lead up to 2015, and engaging inside the Labour Party is one way to achieve this.

There were more points for and against these parts, but I’ve forgotten them (sorry!). The parts were removed. I voted to remove these parts because I think NUS should not be getting involved in Labour Party politics, second I think the statement contains numerous points I would disagree with and thirdly I do not think NUS should be donating random sums of money to the pet projects of individual NEC members for them to use as they see fit – there was no decent explanation of what this money was needed for or what it would be put towards.

There was then a request to delete part 2, which supported the demo outside Conservative Party conference. The argument to remove this was that rather than protesting outside we should be engaging with the people inside the building, and we shouldn’t be threatening the people who are there to participate in the conference. The parts were retained, relatively narrowly. I can’t remember how I voted (probably to abstain, knowing my indecisive self).

The amended motion was then passed unanimously.

Motion 7: Comprehensive Spending Review

This motion was submitted as an emergency motion and was written in response to the recent Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) by  the government. The CSR has resulted in a cut to tertiary education generally as well as several policy changes which are bad for students. The motion condemned these cuts and policy changes, and called for the student loan book not to be sold off to private providers.

The NEC unanimously voted to support the motion.

Note to self: finish these write-ups closer to the date.

Planning the year ahead

At National Conference each year, dozens of resolutions are added to NUS’s policy book, along with the resolutions of the previous two conferences. This creates an enormous amount of active policy, more than could possibly be used in one year to form the basis of campaigning and lobbying. In this regard then the elected officers of NUS have to prioritise what they see as the most important policies over the coming year. Their preferred priorities are included in their manifestos and these form the basis of how people get elected to their positions.

The NEC has an oversight role in ensuring that the priorities of one elected officer fit in with the agreed priorities of the organisation as a whole. In May, at the last NEC meeting, we had a group discussion about which policies we thought were the most important, and gave this feedback to the elected officers. This came back to us at this meeting as an agreed summary of what would be prioritised throughout the year.

This document can be found in the main document pack of the previous post. Broadly speaking, these are the key areas NUS is going to work on this year:

  1. Students and work – focussing on creating better jobs for students and graduates through research, campaigns and a national accreditation scheme, continued and upscaled campaigning on the issue of unpaid internships and apprenticeships and action on procurement to increase the volume of student and graduate jobs.
  2. Real Educational Change – looking at new rights and protections for students in the higher education landscape, a national campaign to extend UCAS and the OIA into further education and pushing for a postgraduate loans scheme to tackle the looming crisis of PG access in HE.
  3. General Election 2015 – bringing in a community organizer academy developing skills and capacity amongst students and officers, ten community organising and outreach hubs focused around voter registration and employment and rolling out of a research led general election strategy.
  4. Women and Leadership – introducing a new national mentoring scheme for women officers and staff, tools to increase the number of women candidates in elections and practical action to help unions tackle Lad Culture on campus

To work on these a bit more, we held a breakout session on Points 1-3 (someone spotted these neatly fell into the categories of “Educate, Employ, Empower”, veterans of #demo2012 take note). NEC members held discussions in small groups with the NUS staff members who would be leading in these areas.

I went to the General Election group – we had an interesting discussion about what we should be aiming for in our strategy for 2015, who we should work with, what areas we should prioritise, how we should best concentrate our efforts. I can’t say it was the most decisive discussion I’ve ever been in; I pity the person who has to write up the minutes of what we said and come to a conclusion!

Personally I feel that these are all excellent areas for NUS to focus on and I think they have the potential to make a big impact over the coming year.

Wrapping up

Shortly before the NEC concluded, the NEC held a minutes silence in memory of Fénian Ó Duġaén, a former Sabb of Leicester University Students’ Union, who had sadly passed away.

Following this, a statement read on behalf of Toni Pearce and Dom Anderson on the death of Trayvon Martin.

The NEC then adjourned and many members went to Westminster to celebrate the passing of Same Sex Marriage through the House of Lords.

A little bit on the end

That would be the end of this write-up, were it not for a blog which crossed my computer screen a few weeks ago by a fellow NEC member, Rosie Huzzard. I just want to add a few comments rebutting some of the things written in the piece.

There are two main issues I have. The first is that it sounds like an extended version of the scene from Life of Brian ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ – ‘What has the NEC ever done for students?’: Well, apart from the cuts to HE and FE funding, the rise of the EDL, £3000 bonds for international students, free access to the NHS for all students, no platform, a demo outside Tory party conference, the sale of the student loan book, what has the NEC ever campaigned on?

The second is the rather strange way that the piece makes out that the reason that the NEC voted down the motions on Councillors Against the Cuts, Expropriation of the Banks and parts of the NHS motion is because actually, we are not real people but rather a series of sophisticated automatons controlled by Tony Blair. Presumably my real self was abducted shortly after I was elected.

The saddest thing about this criticism of what happened is that it is an act of self-deception: others didn’t vote down these motions because it would harm our careers in the Labour Party (honestly, what career?), but because we sincerely thought they were pretty rubbish ideas and not the policies NUS should be pursuing. There was some very sophisticated debate on the floor of the NEC and I think it’s dispiriting to see it all written up as us kowtowing to an imaginary factional line.

Contact and next meeting

As always, if you’d like to discuss any of this with me, or you have a strong opinion on something NUS have done, feel free to contact me on twitter (@charlesbarry), or by email, which is my firstname.lastname@nus.org.uk

The next NEC meeting is on the 17th September 2013.

NEC Meeting 15/07/13 – Documents

There are two files here.

File 1 – Main document pack

This contains:

  • Current NEC Membership (NB new FE Zone member is Charlotte Knight)
  • Agenda
  • Minutes of previous meeting
  • Resolutions passed by NEC from Conference
  • Resolutions passed at previous meeting
  • Proposed NEC Standing Orders for 13/14
  • Proposed cycle of business for 13/14
  • The Priority Work and Operating Plan 2013-14
  • Allocation of Political Budgets 2013-14
  • Presidential and Other Appointments and Responsibilities
  • First motion drafts (but no amendments – see below)
  • Document on Committee on access measures at NUS events

File 2 – Motions

This contains the updated version of the motions including proposed amendments, which were missed out from the original pack.

Some thoughts on LGBT stuff

I don’t think I’ve blogged before on LGBT stuff, but these past few days some things have happened that have been bugging me.

Perhaps before I go any further I should probably mention that I am gay. Woo-hoo! Yay! Roll on the party balloons, etc.

I came out ages ago, about 8 years ago to myself, 6 years ago to my parents and I’ve been pretty much coming out constantly ever since, although to decreasing magnitudes of fanfare. Nowadays I delight in seeing the occasional shocked expressions on people’s faces when I mention it, rather than actually being scared of raising the topic.

Anyhow, on Friday it was International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). I posted a mundane status on facebook mentioning this fact. What happened next took me a bit by surprise.

The post got, as expected, a few likes from friends. But some friends thought that celebrating this day was a source of hilarity. The Senor Chang video got posted. I pointed out that making LGBT people the butt of jokes was exactly the sort of thing the day was set up to counter. Soon others were suggesting I get a sense of humour and another suggested I should calm down and visit the Samaritans if I felt that bad.

Why did we need a day against homophobia? One said “having this day is the worst possible thing for equal rights”.

Then someone contacted me on private message to say “I also think that because gay people are an observed minority they think they have different rights to other people”. By posting this status, it was tantamount for straight people “having it shoved in their face”.

The reason I have called all these people ‘friends’ (rather than ‘trolls’ or ‘haters’) is because they are actually that, people who I know personally in the real world and who I value as being my friends.

So I was disappointed in the actions of my friends, because I am actually genuinely offended by what some of them have said, and only one has bothered to apologise for what he said (NB all the people mentioned in this thread were men – I will leave it to the reader to consider the implications of that).

I would never go round to my friends who are BME and call them ‘golliwogs’ or ‘pakis’ or whatever. If they challenged me on my language, I would never say they should grow up or get a sense of humour, or mention the ‘sticks and stones’ argument. I would apologise and in future refrain from using that sort of language. I don’t call people ‘retarded’ (to mean stupid) any more for this reason: disabled people have asked me to stop doing it, so I have.

I’m not quite sure what the big deal is for straight people when I ask them not use the word ‘gay’ as an insult or derogatory term. There are plenty of other words to use, and the reason why I would prefer something else is perfectly obvious: it perpetuates the idea that straight people are superior to LGBT people, or more precisely, that LGBT people are inferior to straight people. The only fact that people use the word ‘gay’ as an insult is because, well, everyone seems to be at it, so why can’t I – it just seems a normal thing.

The other thing that narked me was the idea that I was being too ‘in your face’ or that I was being somehow annoying by mentioning that it was IDAHO day. I mean, aside from the fact that I really doubt that it is particularly ‘in your face’ to mention these topics, compared to the flood of spam and cat videos that make up most of my facebook feed, why is it annoying to say who you are and what you believe in? What makes saying ‘I’m gay and I have views on how you should treat me’ precocious and strident? Many people say ‘I pay my taxes and I’d like my bins to be collected weekly’. The former is apparently controversial, the latter is mundane, banal even. Why the difference? I don’t know.

Finally there was this weird undercurrent that somehow gay people are getting into a flap about nothing and that actually by mentioning the injustices LGBT people face, somehow we are being anti-straight and anti-equality. The logic behind this is, to put it nicely, hard to follow. It reminds me of the women who get called ‘frigid’ because they don’t want to have sex with a man, or who are dubbed ‘hysterical’ when they raise issues of male bias in our society.

Aside from the devastating news and statistics around the prejudice, harassment and discrimination LGBT people face, there is the bizarre idea that being pro-gay is equivalent to anti-straight. This has never been, nor will be, the case. The point of days like IDAHO is to combat prejudice, not to put LGBT people above straight people. And yes, while I want every day to be one against discrimination and prejudice, the point of having a specific day is to give it a special focus and highlight problems which people might not be aware of. The only people who might have to be a tiny bit worried are those who continue anti-LGBT practices, and want to do so uninhibited.

This irrational attitude of “THE GAYS ARE COMING, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES” is epitomised by the horrific and homophobic organisation called ‘Straight Pride’, which wants to organise a straight pride march, to rally and defend the rights of straight people that are supposedly being threatened by improving civil rights for LGBT people. This organisation:

straightpride

The mask slipped at some point and they actually revealed what the point of their organisation was: “to crush the gay agenda” (subsequently they deleted their tweet, but I screen-shotted it, pictured right). One wonders what this gay agenda might be: apologies, minutes, matters arising, and total equality between straight and LGBT people?

The point of IDAHO was to expose these viewpoints, which (except for the last one!) have a veneer of reasonableness, and might be the sort of thing you can find published in a national newspaper. The point of IDAHO was to expose them for what they are: a message of reactionary hatred and intolerance. What I want to see all my friends doing is being supportive in the fight against bigotry and prejudice, and challenging such attitudes when they encounter them. I would never approve of racist language, even though I am white and really can’t be subject to racial oppression in the UK, because I have joined the cause of anti-racism.

Don’t dismiss the views of the group above as some sort of obscure set of crackpots, because they hold surprisingly influential sway over many MPs. Just look at what Nadine Dorries, David Burrowes or even Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond have to say on gay marriage. Read what was written about transgender teacher Lucy Meadows by Richard Littlejohn.

So if you’re a friend of mine and you’re reading this, do your part. If LGBT people ask you not to call others ‘gay’ as an insult, or not to refer to transgender people as ‘trannies’ and so on, do me a favour. Don’t protest, patronise or suggest they lighten up. Check your privilege, be open-minded, and just do what people politely ask of you. Thanks.