New ground was broken on the second day of this year’s NUS Conference: a succession of heated debates, accompanied by several feats of bureaucratic manoeuvring, demonstrated student politics at its best – or at least at its most stereotypical.
As delegates staggered on to the conference floor in preparation for the next thirteen hours of motions, amendments, and speeches, anticipation was high for the first debate of the day. Aaron Kiely, the NUS Black Students’ Officer, took to the podium to speak in favour of getting the NUS to “oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a graduate tax”. Several rounds of for and against speeches followed, with big names from both the left and the right voicing their views. NUS President Toni Pearce framed her opposition with the argument that working-class taxpayers should not end up paying for the education of the rich. University of London President Michael Chessum responded by pointing out that if funding came from general taxation, the working-class would end up paying much less than they currently do as individual students due to the progressive nature of income tax and the availability of funding from the profits of business. Conference voted 280 to 231 to accept the amendment, meaning that the NUS – for the first time since 1996 – supports neither tuition fees nor a graduate tax, and will campaign for free education (on paper, at least).
York’s George Offer made a speech in support of the first welfare-related motion, ‘Homes Fit for Study’. The only controversy with this motion, which proposed a number of new measures to tackle the exploitation of students in rented accommodation, came when conference rejected the setting of maximum rents for university-owned accommodation.
10:30am saw proceedings pause for the presidential election. When Jack Duffin, the chair of Young Independents – UKIP’s youth wing – began to give his speech, members of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts pointedly left the conference floor in protest of the ‘anti-immigrant’ party. Duffin received just 18 votes, compared to 454 for Labour Party member Toni Pearce, 90 for NCAFC candidate and ULU Vice President Daniel Cooper, with 2nd place going to Aaron Kiely, a member of Student Broad Left, who received 190 votes.
The next major issue came with Motion 511, ‘Stand Up to Racism’, submitted by the NUS Black Students Committee with the unanimous support of its members. A counter amendment, submitted by NCAFC, proposed to end the NUS’ affiliation with the campaigning organisation Unite Against Fascism. Several rounds of speeches saw UAF dismissed as a front for the Socialist Workers’ Party, itself heavily criticised for being rape apologist. UAF was also attacked for purported anti-Semitism, by members of Jewish Students. The Black Students’ Committee defended UAF as the most effective front against fascist political activity, citing its regular presence at fascist marches and the support it holds from all main political parties. The amendment passed, with UAF dropped from affiliation.
Day 2’s last leg saw the opening of the NUS AGM – the section of conference where proposals for reform of the union are discussed. The first two motions in this section revived the issue of gender quotas for both delegations and committees, proposals that were defeated at last year’s conference. This year, however, both were successful. Proponents spoke of how women face barriers to participation that men never come across, with the machismo of some aggressive debates cited as an obstacle, alongside any sexism faced by women candidates. Opponents of quotas dismissed the existence of these problems, instead claiming that the current quota-less system was meritocratic.