'No2NUS' - but for how long?

Lured by cheap beer, St Andrews University students are expected to end 25 years of autonomy from the NUS. But, Jane Bradley and Miriam Imrie discover, the issue has divided the town

When he arrives in St Andrews at the end of the summer, Prince William will have a big decision to make. It will not be about which society to join (there is much speculation surrounding the controversial Kate Kennedy men-only club), or which pub to frequent, but which way to vote in the NUS referendum.

Unlike most British universities, St Andrews has not been affiliated to the National Union of Students since 1975. Regular reviews over the past 25 years have shown that students in the tiny Fife town feel that they have no reason to join the 900 other higher-education institutions in Britain whose student unions are connected to the NUS. Until now.

A petition demanding a referendum, signed by more than 100 students, was presented to the St Andrews Students' Association last March, despite a unanimous vote at the association's AGM in February to remain unaffiliated. The Pro-NUS movement was opposed by most members of the students' association, whose official stance after close investigation was to say "No2NUS". Spirited campaigns followed, resulting in a postponement of the referendum after allegations that both campaign teams were breaking budget rules.

The referendum has now been rescheduled for mid-October. Dana Green, the new Association President, believes the second attempt will go smoothly. "We have had meetings with the NUS, and we've looked carefully at rules and regulations for the referendum campaign," she says. "Basically it's all systems go in the new term."

The students' association still remains anti-NUS. "Last year, a working party looked into the pros and cons of reaffiliation and decided that we have a stronger voice as part of the Ancients group [a grouping of Scottish universities] than if we were in the NUS," Ms Green says.

"We have a lot more in common with the other ancient universities – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee – than we do with many other higher-education institutions, and we get just as good deals with our service provider, Northern Services, as we would with the NUS's buying consortium," she says.

Despite the association's determined stance on the issue, the likelihood is that, when the matter is put to the student vote, the NUS will triumph. Many students are not well informed about the pros and cons of joining the NUS, and could be seduced by promises of cheap beer and discounts at high street stores, without considering the long-term financial consequences of such a decision. Affiliation to the NUS costs a students' union between £6,000 and £400,000 per year, depending on the size of the institution and the grant the students' union receives from its university.

Ms Green, who has recently been elected president of Northern Services, says the surface attractions of the NUS will not improve on what St Andrews has already. "Northern Services provides a good deal, and we are so satisfied with the current situation that no one has been talking about it, and people are not aware how good it is. I think most students believe they are part of the NUS already."

A leaked report this year revealed the NUS to be more than £300,000 in debt through overspending and uncollected affiliation fees. A spokeswoman for the NUS agrees the debt is significant, but blames the problem on lack of student funding from the Government.

"Yes, we have a bit of a deficit, which we are working to rectify in a sensible, considered way, using procedures common to many charitable organisations," she says. "But it's not surprising to have a shortfall when the whole sector is severely underfunded, and when block grants to student unions are being squeezed."

Although NUS Scotland – a body autonomous from the main NUS – is financially independent of the national body, its funds are inextricably linked. If the NUS incurred further debt, the Scottish branch could suffer. It has no debts of its own at present, although it has also been warned about overspending in the coming academic year.

The NUS is the body that has a monopoly on the student voice. It speaks for students nationally, to such an extent that non-affiliated universities have often found themselves unrecognised and ignored. Scottish students' unions not affiliated to the NUS were prevented from submitting verbal evidence to the Scottish Parliament last year, despite the large number of unaffiliated universities north of the border.

Certain institutions are beginning to break away, however, led by the 1999 disaffiliation of a previously NUS-supporting university, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

According to Paul Leake, Treasurer of Durham University's Students' Association, the NUS is the only option for his university. But problems within the organisation's structure make it far from ideal, he says. "Being part of the NUS is the only way to make a difference on national policy affecting students," he says. "For example, the university is suffering from chronic underfunding, resulting in an increase in accommodation fees, but by being part of the NUS we have the ability to lobby MPs across the country to make our cause known."

He adds: "The NUS has democratic problems and this has been the focus of agitation among Durham students. It is certainly not perfect, by a long way."

Some critics argue the NUS has become complacent through being the only avenue for students to raise issues. Certainly, the bad publicity it received recently over its finances may force its bosses to take a long hard look at what it can achieve in future.

Jane Bradley is studying English at St Andrews University. Miriam Imrie is a journalism student at City University

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss