Redbrick spoke to the Guild’s delegation for the NUS National Conference 2017 following three days of elections, policy debate and partying
On Tuesday 25th April, over 1,200 students, elected officers and campaigners descended upon Brighton for the National Union of Students’ (NUS) annual National Conference. Representing the University of Birmingham (UoB)’s Guild of Students were eight elected delegates led by Guild President Ellie Keiller, as well as Izzy Lenga, an elected member of the National Executive Council (NEC) Block of 15.
By the end of the three-day conference, it’s fair to say that delegates were exhausted, but for the most part, satisfied with the results of the week, which included the election of the National President, five Vice President positions (VP), and the passing of policy in five key areas, or ‘Zones’.
Speaking to Redbrick, Guild President Ellie Keiller described her first experience of National Conference as ‘pretty rough and incredibly exhausting’, but added that she had a great time representing UoB students. ‘NUS National Conference is an experience that in many ways just can’t be described,’ she said.
Having come in ninth place in the Guild’s election for NUS delegate, Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism Officer Elect Shimon Kelly also attended the conference as a delegate due to the original eighth member of the delegation being unable to attend. Kelly told Redbrick, ‘NUS conference was undoubtedly three of the most stressful and busiest days of my life’.
Even though delegates are on conference floor until 21:00 on the first two days, some election candidates throw parties for delegates as part of their campaigns, and many delegates go out again on the second night, especially if the results have gone their way. ‘Campaigning and debating from morning until night really leaves you shattered,’ he added. ‘However, a lack of sleep took nothing away from the formative and momentous experience that it was’.
After introductory remarks from several speakers, delegates discussed motions in the Education and Union Development Zones late into Tuesday evening. This included one motion submitted by the Guild, and proposed by former Guild Officer Izzy Lenga, to add sanitary products into the NUS Purchasing Consortium. Following a particularly punny speech by Lenga, the motion was overwhelming voted in as NUS policy.
The following day revolved around elections for the National President, as well as five VPs, in which delegates heard a five-minute speech from each of the candidates before casting their votes. Shakira Martin, current VP for Further Education, was the Guild’s favourite with the majority of the delegation voting in her favour.
However, first time Guild delegate Xenios Matjilla’s vote went to Tom Harwood, who Matjilla claimed would have been ‘able to re-legitimise the NUS by implementing sensible and relevant policies and ensuring that the NUS works as it should’. In the end, Martin received 56% of the vote, beating the incumbent, Malia Bouattia, and Matjilla’s choice, Tom Harwood.
Elsewhere, most Guild delegates expressed approval over the five elected VPs, one of which was UoB’s Izzy Lenga, who was elected VP for Welfare. Speaking to Redbrick, Keiller said, ‘campaigning for the candidates who I think would do the best job for the students was really fun and it was great that so many of the elections went the way I’d voted.’
Kelly was also happy with the results, describing all but one of the successful candidates as ‘moderate’. He told Redbrick that this shows that the NUS is moving back in the right direction, by ‘focusing on the needs and rights of all students, whom it has always claimed to represent, even if it hasn’t always succeeded.’
Wednesday 26th April also saw motions debated under Welfare, Society & Citizenship, and AGM. Speaking about the motions debated over the week, Keiller told Redbrick that she was pleased that the conference largely focused on students and that they didn’t spend time debating motions such as ‘abolishing the monarchy’ which was submitted by Warwick University. ‘The NUS gets a bad rep sometimes,’ she said, ‘but if people didn’t submit motions that waste time and don’t affect students, it’d be taken a lot more seriously.’
The Guild was involved in two motions that were discussed in the Welfare Zone. Guild Welfare Officer Ross Strong, who attended as an elected delegate, told Redbrick that he was disappointed to see how internal politics dictated voting patterns. ‘On a number of occasions people did not vote for or recognise work that they likely agreed with,’ he said. ‘They just couldn’t be seen to agree with certain people’.
Strong was also disappointed that most motions submitted couldn’t be debated due to time constraints, noting that his own motion could have been among them. Although Strong’s motion was discussed however, it was ‘composited’ with a number of other motions that were similar. This means that all the lines in several similar motions were combined, and all the lines in Strong’s original motion about a mental health framework were kept.
‘It was a shame that due to being combined I wasn’t given the speech for it’, he told Redbrick. ‘I’m extremely pleased that it is now NUS policy to develop a mental health award scheme, providing a framework for Students’ Unions to follow for implementing effective change on their campuses.
‘This framework will give [Welfare Officers] a road-map to follow so that Unions can make better progress faster. With the election of Izzy Lenga as VP Welfare I’m confident this will be implemented with the potential to make a huge difference for student mental health.’
Another Welfare motion submitted by the Guild, alongside Sheffield, Ulster and Leeds University unions, was titled ‘It’s Time To Combat Anti-Semitism’. Whilst there was some controversy over the definition of anti-Semitism used in this motion, the motion passed unamended.
Speaking to Redbrick about her thoughts on the motion, and the conference more generally, Guild delegate Hannah Sherrard described the week as ‘monumental’ for Jewish students. ‘With the motion on anti-Semitism passed and Izzy Lenga being elected to VP welfare the future for not only Jewish students but all students looks brighter and more inclusive’.
One motion submitted by the Guild was not debated however, due to time constraints. This motion was the work of Guild Postgraduate Students’ Officer Rose Bennett. ‘A huge amount of people’s time and work was wasted and important issues just disappeared, including our own Postgraduate Officer motion,’ Strong told Redbrick. ‘The format of National Conference needs to be seriously reconsidered’.
Nevertheless, Keiller told Redbrick that Bennett will have an opportunity to submit a similar motion, that proposes to make NUS’ Postgraduate Students’ Officer a full-time role, at the upcoming Postgraduate Conference.
Bennett’s motion stood no chance of being debated at the conference as one motion dominated discussion in the relevant Zone. This motion, titled ‘Strengthening NUS Democracy’, had 16 proposed amendments and was the subject of much controversy which exposed the political infighting between different factions within the NUS that the organisation has become known for.
The motion came after delegates voted for the NUS to carry out a democratic review two years ago and 12 guiding principles were voted on the following year. After a two-year analysis of the NUS’ current democratic system, this motion made several proposals that included regional decision-making, online voting for delegates, and unions holding NUS officers to account with the possibility of petitioning to remove them.
Most of the amendments to this motion were not discussed, and the discussion over those that were sparked fiery debate which included accusations of filibustering, poor decision-making by the Chair, and factional deal-making by the Democratic Procedures Committee (DPC). In the end, the motion passed, but only after it was decided that most of the amendments wouldn’t be discussed.
‘A significant review of NUS’ democracy was passed without opportunity for adequate debate,’ Strong explained. ‘This is an incredibly important step in modernising how NUS engages with students and becomes relevant to them again, and I voted for it, but I also voted for one of the amendments and there were plenty of amendments which were thrown out for time.’
Guild Education Officer Elect Adam Goldstone, who was attending the conference as an elected delegate, told Redbrick that this motion may be seen as boring, but in reality it will have a huge impact on the NUS in the years to come. ‘The elected officers can only be in their positions for a couple of years, whereas the way we as students engage with NUS democracy probably won’t change for a lot longer,’ he said.
Finally, elections took place for the NEC Block of 15, as well as five DPC members. Guild Representation and Resources Officer Elect Jess Levy, who attended the conference as an elected delegate, ran for a place on the NEC, whilst former Guild Home Students’ Officer Adam Elmi, also attending as a delegate, ran for a place on the DPC. Results for both positions will be announced on Tuesday 2nd May.