The National Union of Students has come under fire after it emerged that proposals are being considered to get rid of liberation officers, who represent black, LGBT+, trans, disabled and women students, in order to cut costs.
The proposal is just one of a number of measures under consideration to try to plug the projected £3m deficit facing the troubled union, which represents the bulk of students in UK higher and further education.
Student activists are warning the proposals, if carried through, will hamper democracy and campaigning by the NUS, reducing the union to “little more than a service provider and thinktank”.
Members of a recently formed coalition called the Student Left Network is pushing for a motion of no confidence to be brought against the NUS president, Shakira Martin, over her handling of the crisis.
Marcelina Rejwerska, a Royal Holloway student and Student Left Network member, said: “At a time when the far right is growing and marketisation is sweeping through the education sector, a campaigning, radical and democratic NUS with real student control is more crucial than ever.
“NUS would be nothing without outward facing campaigns and liberation officers representing black, LGBT+, trans, disabled and women students.”
The cost-cutting proposals were discussed last week at a summit of student union presidents and NUS staff, which was organised to consider radical changes to democratic and corporate structures.
A “turnaround board” has been appointed to address the £3m deficit and stabilise NUS finances. Critics are concerned that students will play no part in decision making until they are presented with a final proposal at the NUS national conference next April.
Vijay Jackson, a University of Edinburgh NUS delegate, said: “This is an anti-democratic coup. The student left can have no confidence in a president who allows drastic cuts to democracy and liberation with no say from student members.”
Student Left Network also raised concerns about corporate pay. The chief executive role is reported to attract a £100,000 salary. “It’s unacceptable that cuts are being made to democracy and liberation campaigns which give marginalised students a voice, when the unelected and highly paid CEO still earns £100,000,” said Jackson.
Among those attending the meeting was Evie Aspinall, the president of Cambridge University student union, who said the proposals were not hard and fast, but more “people throwing ideas out there”.
She said: “For me, the heart of the NUS is that it should be protecting and fighting for students, particularly the most marginalised. Getting rid of liberation officers is very dangerous, in the sense it will curtail the NUS’s ability to do its core functions and protect students.”
The NUS responded saying the proposals were not definitive, but intended to prompt discussion. A spokesperson said a discussion paper called NUS Reform, Member and Stakeholder Consultation had been published last month.
“The aim of the paper is to bring together thoughts from NUS, students’ unions and others, and set out the principles for reform, to help frame discussions about [the] NUS’s future. A number of sketches are set out in the paper, along with a number of questions. It’s important to remember that these sketches are not definitive proposals but are meant to act as a stimulus to discussion.
“None of the sketches refer to reductions in democracy or campaigning, but one does seek to identify the best way of properly resourcing student leaders to deliver a powerful national student voice, given a potentially reduced income.”
The NUS, which represents seven million students, said all members could take part in the consultation through their students’ union. Stakeholders have until 21 December to make their views known.
Martin and NUS acting chief executive Peter Robertson sent letters last month to the 600 affiliated student unions and associations, warning the NUS was unable to meet a projected £3m deficit this year from its existing reserves. Members were told that the organisation may need to mortgage its headquarters, cut staff and curtail activities in order to remain solvent.