The NUS formed during a meeting held at the University of London, where the Inter-Varsity Association and the International Students Bureau agreed to merge. The founding members included Imperial College and the University of Brimingham.
All university colleges within England and Wales were in membership, however the NUS failed to be taken seriously by the public or by students.
Teacher colleges and technical colleges were allowed membership. At this point the NUS began focus more on issues which affected students.
During the Second World War the NUS took an active role in mobilising students against Nazi rule, tasking themselves with finding the world an alternative to fascism.
The NUS called on the widening of access to higher education and other progressive education policies.
The NUS became more focused on international issues, with a series of campaigns.
The union gave evidence to the Robbins Committee (which later produced the Robbins Report calling for the expansion of higher education).
The leadership of NUS was challenged by more radical students. A series of events occured including the LSE sit-in of March 1967, the government’s decision to increase overseas students’ fees by 270%, and growing opposition to the Vietnam War, leading the NUS to become a leader and an organiser for the political aspirations of the student movement.
The NUS Legal Fund was introduced to encourage students to participate in more local and national demonstrations.
The NUS succeeds in getting student fees abolished and foils attempts to charge overseas student more.
The Conservative Party attempted to split up students’ union services between those that could be publicly funded and those that could only be funded by voluntary contribution. The attempts were held up until after the 1992 general election under the Education Act 1994.
In 1995 the NUS succeeded in tabling important amendments to the Education (Student Loans) Bill, designed to privatise the Student Loans Company, in both Houses of Parliament.
The work of NUS at the end of the 1990’s became dominated by top up fees. 40,000 students march in 14 cities up and down the country against plans to introduce tuition fees in 1997. The protests failed with the government announcing the introduction of top up fees in the Higher Education Bill.
The NUS persuaded over 100 MPs to sign up to an early day motion against top-up-fees. This resulted in the abolition of up-front tuition fees in Scotland.
An increasingly large number of students and instiutions began to question the NUS’s purpose. Sen Ganesh, then president of Imperial College Union, said : “NUS’s claim to be representative of students is not borne out by their work”.
The ‘Stop Fees Now’ campaign brought 31,000 students from around the country to the centre of London in the largest student demonstration the NUS have ever organised. Despite the scale of the protest the NUS is unable to stop the introduction of top-up fees, which are passed with a government majority of 5.
In recent years, the NUS has faced a prolonged financial crisis. In the 2006 NUS Conference a motion was passed to allow the NUS to introduce a student paid-for NUS card called NUS Extra.