YES: “We get to be a part of a community of students.”
Jo Boon has possibly one of the most unenviable tasks in recent St Andrews history – she must try and convince a majority of students to vote yes to joining the National Union of Students (NUS), just three years after the student body rejected the idea by nearly a three to one margin.
Ms Boon sat down to speak to The Saint about why she thinks St Andrews should end its long standing independence and affiliate with the NUS, as well as how she plans to convert other students to her cause.
Asked to explain why she personally believes St Andrews should join the NUS, she puts it simply: “we gain so much more than we would ever lose.” Going into more detail she added, “we get to be part of a community of students across the country, we get to campaign on issues with them, we get to make a difference in a way that St Andrews on its own could absolutely never do.”
Ms Boon went on to explain that she believes the NUS could help St Andrews stand up for student groups that have traditionally been excluded.
She also praised the political role of the NUS, saying that essentially “they protect us from Conservative government legislation.”
She cited a case in which the NUS campaigned to stop the scrapping of a particular loan which students with disabilities received. This helped to lead to the government announcing that it was no longer being scrapped and that they would conduct a two year survey into the issue instead.
“That’s essentially what the NUS is, it’s about protecting students’ rights,” Ms Boon said, asserting her firmest reason for her support of affiliation.
She argued that because we are not part of the NUS, “St Andrews’ reputation is terrible” amongst other universities in the UK.
Ms Boon described how students from other universities see St Andrews as “stand off-ish” because of their seperation from the NUS.
Because of this, she has personally experienced problems when campaigning on issues she cares about.
“It is difficult for me to campaign on issues that really matter to me because I’m tarred by the reputation of ‘your university doesn’t care about protecting students in the same way that we do’,” she told The Saint.
Qualifying the implication that other universities see St Andrews’ students as uncaring, she said: “St Andrews is obviously still very well respected and it’s definitely never a personal issue between students.”
Explaining further, she added: “I think that sometimes, our unwillingness to be part of that conversation can be reflected badly within other student communities because there’s some confusion as to why we’re not willing to be part of a shared discourse.”
Responding to the perception amongst some students that the NUS is a hot bed of far left-wing politics, Ms Boon pointed out that if students believe the NUS is too left wing, they should join it and seek to change it.
She hopes this perception will not put students off of voting yes. “If we were part of NUS, we would be shaping the discourse within NUS.
The NUS is not a dictatorial body, we would be part of discussions,” she said.
Ms Boon believes that St Andrews could both “shape” and “learn from” the NUS.
She laid out some of her plans for convincing students that NUS affiliation is the way forward for St Andrews.
“We’re planning to inform people as best as possible and to provide them with all the information,” she said.
“I think, to give credit to St Andrews students, we have incredibly intelligent people here, and I’m sure anyone engaged with this issue and who chooses to vote will do the research, look into what affiliation would mean, and what they would need to contribute to the NUS. But also what the benefits for them would be. And so I do have great faith in St Andrews.”
However, Ms Boon did admit that she felt she might struggle to grab students’ attention at a time when many are busy with deadlines and other commitments, saying that “students are really busy and we’re going to have to find a way of engaging them in a conversation.”
Continuing, she said: “we’re going to have to make sure that information is accurate and succinct and we will make it very easily available for people to distil in their own time so when they come to make the decision they can make an informed one.”
Ms Boon emphasised that the campaigning efforts and support for vulnerable students which the NUS provides is a key part of why she believes in NUS affiliation.
“A particular concern for me is that the NUS have, in many ways, really effective efforts and legislation around sexual violence on campuses. And because we are not part of the NUS, we do not benefit in this way. Part of the problem at the moment is a difficulty with knowing to what extent universities can intervene if a student is sexually assaulted, which is a very serious issue for all universities and all campuses, not just in Scotland but all over the world,” she said.
“St Andrews cannot change the law alone, that’s completely impossible, but if we were to join with the NUS, we would actually be able to campaign with them and make a positive difference in protecting our students,” she continued.
Ms Boon is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about what membership of the NUS would mean for St Andrews students.
As the interview concluded, she once again asserted her main reasons for why students should vote yes in the upcoming referendum.
“It offers protection for all students, it particularly offers protection to vulnerable students,” she said.
NO: “It’s not fun, it’s not nice and it is certainly not us.”
Older St Andreans might be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja-vu as the question of NUS affiliation rolls around once again. It was after all just three years ago that the student body was last asked to vote on the subject, returning a 75 per cent to 25 per cent verdict against joining the Union.
One person hoping that history might repeat itself on this particular occasion is newly-elected no campaign spokeswoman.
Annie Newman. Current Rector’s Assessor and an SRC veteran Ms Newman is no stranger to the realities of canvassing the student body for votes. And while the margin of last time’s victory might well be a cause for complacency for some, she remains enthusiastic and focused on the campaign ahead. “I’m really excited about it; we’re going to run a really positive campaign,” she begins. “We want to focus on what voting no means saying yes to.”
The National Union of Students represents more than 600 student unions – around seven million students in total – and has campaigned for members on issues ranging from tuition fees to council tax since its foundation in 1922. Why, then, should St Andrews stay solo?
“I think it’s a common-sense thing,” she said. “It’s not all about politics but it just doesn’t work well for us.”
St Andrews students voted to leave the NUS in 1977, several lifetimes ago by the standards of student politics. But the issues that dominated that debate – the lack of representation, financial burden and the divergent political cultures of the two institutions – remain as relevant as ever today.
“This is about how we fund our societies, how we organise as a student body and how we manage our own affairs,” Ms Newman continued.
Firstly, there’s the cost. At around £23,000 in the first year alone, the annual affiliation fee would amount to 80 per cent of the societies’ budget granted by the University. “That money would come out of the budget for all our student committees, the budget for all our societies. So we would all be actively losing money.” Even the widely-lauded NUS Extra card, she argues, would come nowhere near recouping such an outlay, likely to be worth only about £1,500 each year.
“Currently our Union is able to give out a lot of money for some really cool, worthwhile causes and that just wouldn’t be possible as part of the NUS,” she added.
But while many students will be aware of the cost argument, it is the political implications of NUS membership that most animate Ms Newman. The NUS’ controversial ‘No Platform’ policy compels members to prevent individuals or members of organisations holding “racist or fascist views” from attending or speaking at affiliated events. In 2010, two NUS officers forced the cancellation of a proposed debate on multiculturalism organised by the Durham Union Society as it was scheduled to feature two prominent members of the BNP. The controversy sparked a referendum in which Durham students initially voted to disaffiliate from the NUS, although that decision was reversed the next year.
For Ms Newman, this should be a cause of considerable concern to students in St Andrews. “The idea that you can have certain groups, whose ideas are decided to be illegitimate so they should never be heard, that’s not what St Andrews is about. We have a thriving debating society and a really open intellectual culture here. If we join we would be threatening both.”
The NUS has also hit the news in recent years with a number of eyebrow-raising moves including passing motions to abolish prisons and, recently, to ban crossdressing at NUS-affiliated institutions for being “prejudiced and appropriative.” This is something Ms Newman views as “dangerously close to banning drag.
Our LGBT community is an integral part of the wider student body and we shouldn’t do anything to put anyone’s freedom of expression at risk.”
“St Andrews students have shown time and again that, in cases such as these, they don’t like the overly politicised, radical side of the NUS,” she concluded. “It’s not fun, it’s not nice and it’s certainly not us.”
So what then of the positive case for remaining unaffiliated? “We shouldn’t be ashamed to say it: we live on a rock on the edge of the country. We’re one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world.
We are unique in that we don’t really have nightlife and so everything we do and we enjoy as students comes down to us.”
“Because of that I think we’ve developed a really unique culture. And that culture means we can have challenging debates where unconventional views are heard, a Union that supports amazing events, and a relationship between our Union and the University that is working really well at improving the student experience. We just don’t need the NUS”.
From Freshers’ Week events to the recent campaign against the widely unpopular Higher Education Governance Bill, Ms Newman is emphatic that St Andrews students are better off when their local representatives are free to work for them without the presence of a wider national body, something she argues could be “very disruptive.”
Those who endured the last NUS debate three years ago might well feel jaded at the prospect of yet another vote. But Ms Newman is insistent that this is a cause that everyone should be passionate about, and the no campaign will focus on engaging as wide a cross-section of the student body as possible with a “creative, light-hearted and funny” message.
The Saint concluded the interview by asking Ms Newman to surmise the no campaign’s message in 100 words or less: “By voting no, we’re saying yes to giving societies the funding that they need and deserve.
“We’re saying yes to an arrangement that is scoring wins for students now. And we’re making a statement about being comfortable with who we are, that we appreciate the really distinctive, open student culture that we have developed over the last 600 years.”