Student Affairs

Unions are Important: Analysing the National Union of Students (NUS)

Illustration by Isabella Toppi

The National Union of Students is the peak representative body for undergraduate students who are studying in an Australian university. Its basic aims are to safeguard and progress the interests of students. NUS was established in 1987, having descended from the now-defunct Australian Union of Students (AUS). NUS, via its website, asserts that it seeks to achieve its noble aims by ‘by working with campus-based student organisations, running actions and campaigns, and making sure the voices of students are heard by parliamentarians.’

The need for a national union that protects students is pronounced in the current political and economic environment. Universities are no longer public institutions, but businesses that are run according to the profit motive. In many cases this results in universities around Australia subordinating the tangible interests of students to the demand of profit and capital. This is evident in the frequent course restructurings taking place across Australia (the University of Melbourne example being the most infamous) and the reduction of funding for lecturers, tutors and mental health services. Students are also not immune from Federal government action, who only recently attempted to introduce 100k degrees.

Annually, NUS holds a National Conference in Victoria. Delegates are elected from around Australia to vote on, and thereby determine the policy of the union for the upcoming year. Some of the matters voted on at the 2016 National Conference related to opposing government cuts to welfare and universities, as well as advocating for the introduction of sensible drug policies. Many students also come to witness the proceedings and debate policy about which they are passionate.

The main factions are: Socialist Alternative, Grassroots, National Labor Students, the Independents, Student Unity and The Australian Liberal Students’ Federation. There are also independents who vote individually.

Certainly, conference floor is fertile ground for debate. Each faction has a particular perspective on the issues of the day, and they are accordingly entitled to share this with the supporters of the union. Thorough discussion of these issues allows for each attendee to assume an informed, considered personal position. For the most part, this is a politically stimulating thing.

That isn’t to say that National Conference functions perfectly. Sometimes speaker’s arguments can descend into ad hominem statements, and factional hostilities can get in the way of productive debates. For example, there were a number of times where speaker’s were shouted down from other factions, thereby stultifying legitimate discussion. Moments such as these are contrary to the objectives of a representative student union.

However, it would be wrong to assume that this is a defining characteristic of the union. Indeed, there were times where other factions congratulated one another on creating good policy. One of the more memorable instances of cooperation came after lunch on the third day of the Conference. Students in attendance divided themselves into states, ready to discuss their plans for the National Day of Action (NDA) in March. There were many worthy contributions on how to ensure that the day would be a success, and the spirit of collaboration was palpable. It is with great anticipation that we wait for the NDA, the aim of which is to promote discussion about making university education free again.

NUS is a vital student body that was conceived to protect the interests of now under-siege students. It would be erroneous to expect that the members of the union be in complete consensus on every issue. But, a united and harmonious union is bound to be most successful in pursuing the maintenance and advancement of student rights.  

Nick Bugeja

The author Nick Bugeja

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