'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
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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