St Andrews and the NUS: career communists and bad governance

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Illustration: Monica Burns

St Andrews has a long history of student unionism. It was one of the first British universities to establish representation for students: the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) was formed in 1885, and in 1889 St Andrews joined the Scottish Student Representative Council to bring together the SRCs from the four ancient universities. The St Andrews Students’ Union was then founded in 1892 to provide facilities and social activities; a separate Women’s Union was established in 1904 and joined with the Students’ Union in 1963.

When the National Union of Students (NUS) was founded in 1922, it was only for universities in England and Wales, however, so in 1935 St Andrews and Edinburgh led the formation of the Scottish Union of Students (SUS). This held until 1971, when bids for a more united front saw the SUS merge with the NUS to become NUS Scotland. As part of the NUS, St Andrews now enjoyed representation across the UK, as well as travel discounts through NUS Travel and cheap insurance through NUS-owned Endsleigh Insurance.

After just a few years, however, discontent was brewing in St Andrews. The NUS, now representing 750,000 students from 960 colleges, was accused of being spendthrift with its membership revenues, of poorly representing students and, in the highly-charged political atmosphere of the 1970s, of being “a political platform for a spread of views from the left.” In November 1975, a debate motion titled “This House Would Disaffiliate From the NUS As It Now Is” passed with a two-thirds majority in favour.

The SRC soon called for a referendum on NUS membership, which was held on January 27, 1976. Despite a visit from NUS representatives a week earlier and a strong ‘Yes’ campaign arguing for practicalities such as the use of NUS Travel, students had made up their minds: 1,384 voted to disaffiliate, versus 653 in favour of remaining.

The next year saw turmoil. St Andrews could not leave the NUS without six months’ notice, so tenacious ‘Yes’ campaigners formed a Student Action Group to get the decision reversed before the official disaffiliation on January 1, 1977. The group was even joined by some key ‘No’ campaigners who cited “[a] change in [the] political climate” following the election of a conservative to the NUS executive. But the NUS’ appeal was dashed when the collapse of NUS Travel forced it to sell off its profitable businesses, including Endsleigh, and by 1977, the Action Group had failed to get another referendum called. St Andrews terminated its membership.

Life on the outside

Despite leaving the NUS, St Andrews was keen to maintain its links with other institutions and started talks, coordinated in part by one Alex Salmond, about establishing a new SUS with Edinburgh and Strathclyde, also recently disaffiliated. The effort was inadvertently helped by the NUS when, during a conference attempting to entice back Edinburgh, NUS President, Sue Slipman, lost her temper, labelled St Andrews an “elitist institution,” and suggested it would not be welcomed back into the NUS even if it voted to join. The Edinburgh Students’ Association President, Keith Leslie, called Slipman “a career communist … who owes her position to electoral manipulation.” A St Andrews spokesperson at the time said: “I think the referendum result will show Ms Slipman that the dislike is mutual.”

On November 3, 1977, it was decided to settle the matter of unionism with another referendum. The options on the ballot gave students the choice between the NUS (182 votes), working towards the SUS (750) or no union at all (837). After redistribution, St Andrews had narrowly declared its independence: 831 votes for the SUS and 892 votes for no union.

Without St Andrews’ support the SUS efforts fell apart, but St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee did later form the ‘Ancients’ group. After interest from Strathclyde, this became in 1999 the more inclusive Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland (CHESS), a forum for dialogue between Students’ Associations (in 1983 St Andrews had mirrored many other universities by unifying its SRC and Student Union into a single Students’ Association).

Bad blood

CHESS enabled discussion between institutions, but concerns about wider representation soon had St Andrews students wondering about the NUS once more. When an independently-minded SRC passed a motion in February 2001 to declare the Student Association’s official position as anti-NUS, a student petition led to a referendum hastily being called for March 23, despite criticisms by the NUS-backed ‘Yes’ campaign over the time it would have to organise and nine months of research by a working party that found reaffiliation to the NUS would be detrimental.

The problems escalated when the NUS itself, eager to secure St Andrews’ reaffiliation, sent representatives to St Andrews who were promptly accused by the SRC of breaking the rules by blanketing the town in “outside propaganda.” In response, St Andrews students protested by reading aloud the Declaration of Arbroath and Declaration of Independence on the doorstep of NUS Scotland’s headquarters in Edinburgh.

Eventually the referendum, now being overseen by the University to ensure the vote remained fair, was postponed until May 11 and then October 12, owing to the need for a “cooler atmosphere.” It was then pushed back again to October 19 after a request from the ‘Yes’ campaign to separate it from other elections. But the backbiting continued right up until the end when the NUS circulated a pamphlet falsely claiming the University had given up on the referendum. The Students’ Association responded by directly appealing for students to vote ‘No’.

When the vote was finally held, a landslide result saw 1,076 students vote to remain independent while only 63 voted in favour of rejoining. But there was one final controversy: since the Students’ Association required 1,400 votes to ensure validity, the vote was declared ‘aquorate’ and had to be ratified by the Students’ Association Board – which was officially anti-NUS. Despite complaints, the Board ratified the vote.

The present day

The issue then lay dormant once more, until it was suddenly awoken by events that shook students nationwide: the cuts to higher education and raising of tuition fees to £9,000. The protests across the country thrust the NUS into the limelight and raised the question of St Andrews’ national representation once more.

With CHESS largely inactive since 2009, the SRC began to feel that St Andrews’ isolation outside the NUS was harming it. The Students’ Association President, Patrick O’Hare, commented in August 2011 that the meetings of the Scottish Campaign Against Fees and Cuts were “one of the few chances to meet other Sabbs,” while SRC member Chloe Hill noted in March 2012 that without the NUS’ networking opportunities, “St Andrews has no voice.”

On April 10, 2012, citing the building momentum, the SRC called for a referendum for May 2-3, only to call another meeting on April 25 to re-examine the issue after “financial, technical and constitutional concerns” were raised. Amid allegations of the Sabb-elects seeking to influence the matter, the major criticisms were that a vote in May would leave little time for independent financial analysis and that the ‘Yes’ campaign would have been led by well-prepared sabbatical officers while the ‘No’ campaign would have been led by students studying for the upcoming exams. Chloe Hill commented: “This is no longer an issue of the NUS referendum. It is an issue of bad governance.” Eventually, the meeting voted to delay the referendum until November 2012.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this! It was very interesting to hear about the history of the NUS relationship with St Andrews. Thank you for taking the time to put together such a thoughtful piece!

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