National Union of Students (United Kingdom)

National Union of Students (NUS)
President Liam Burns
Founded 1922
Headquarters 184-192 Drummond Street, London, NW1 3HP
International affiliation European Students' Union

The National Union of Students (NUS) is Britain’s confederation of students’ unions. Around 600 students’ unions are in membership, accounting for more than 95 per cent of all higher and further education unions in the UK. Through their member students’ unions, NUS represents the interests of more than seven million students. Although the NUS is the central organisation for all affiliated unions in the UK, there are also the devolved national sub-bodies NUS Scotland in Scotland, NUS Wales in Wales and NUS-USI in Northern Ireland (the latter being co-administered by the Union of Students in Ireland).

NUS is a member of the European Students' Union.



The NUS was formed in 1922 at a meeting held at the University of London. At this meeting, the Inter-Varsity Association and the International Students Bureau (which organised student travel and had been lobbying for a national body) agreed to merge. Founding members included the unions of University of Birmingham, Birkbeck College, London, LSE, Imperial College London (who first left in 1923 and have subsequently rejoined and left three times, the last time being in June 2008), King's College London (who supplied the first President (Sir Ivison Macadam) and the University of Bristol.


Around 600 students’ unions are in membership, accounting for more than 95 per cent of all British higher and further education unions. Through their member students’ unions, NUS represents the interests of more than seven million students.


NUS' mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students by providing students and students’ unions with a collective voice by delivering a range of activity that articulates the needs and aspirations of its members to relevant bodies. They also develop and champion strong students’ unions and deliver a range of activities aimed at building their affiliates’ capacity to engage effectively on a local level, building strong and sustainable organisations that make students’ lives better.


The NUS holds national conferences once a year. National Conference is the sovereign body of NUS, and is where NUS policy is decided. Other conferences, such as Regional Conferences, Women's Conference, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Trans Conference (changed as of 2004), Disabled Students Conference, Black Students' Conference and the International Students' Conference (created in 2004) are run to enhance the representation of the specific members they include.

Most of these conferences, and in particular the elections held at them, are contested by factions including Conservative Future, Education Not for Sale, Labour Students, Liberal Youth, the Organised Independents, Socialist Students, Socialist Workers' Student Society, Student RESPECT and Student Broad Left. In addition to these political factions, interest groups such as the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the Union of Jewish Students are deeply involved in the internal democratic processes of NUS.

On 17th January 2011, the website was launched by a group of independent students, to act as a "hub of information on the NUS, helping to increase scrutiny, openness and accountability". The website includes contact details for the National Executive Council, committee meeting minutes, and information on how NUS works and how to get involved. Through the campaigning of the website, more of this information is now being published on the NUS membership website, NUSConnect.

NUS Services

Owned by over 200 students’ unions and NUS, NUS Services is the forerunner of the student market. NUS Services made £2.5 million for the student movement and tries to set itself apart from many other commercial organisations by leading from a democratic perspective; their strategy is led by shareholders and directed by a board and committees composed of volunteers from NUS' shareholder unions.

They provide three core services:

• Collective purchasing • Support services • Marketing services

The Association for Managers in Students' Unions recently merged with NUS and NUS Services.

NUS Extra

NUS Extra is a discount card for students. The scheme represents a key element of the collaboration agenda between NUS and NUS Services. It is the focus of a joint strategy to provide students’ unions with new sources of income and support in the context of significant pressures on more traditional commercial activity. Students’ unions receive commission on every Extra card that they sell.

NUS Charitable Services

NUS has established a new charity to drive improvement in students’ unions. It will focus on students’ union quality, talent management, equality and diversity, strategic development and turnaround, ethical and environmental work, and fundraising.


The NUS has come in for criticism from various quarters, particularly from those students' unions who are not affiliated. Sen Ganesh, then president of Imperial College Union, said in 2002: "NUS's claim to be representative of students is not borne out by their work", especially as "the NUS is dominated by Labour students and this diminishes the ability to address student issues in an impartial fashion."[1]

The NUS has in particular come in for criticism for the way its democratic processes are structured. Unlike individual student unions and despite the rise of online voting in Universities, NUS officers are not directly elected by students, but instead elected by delegates. This is because NUS' members are students' unions and not students.

The NUS has also been criticised for selling its 'NUS Extra Card', which offers students discounts on certain purchases, rather than confronting issues that actually affect students.[2] Despite an NUS Policy that none of the discounts on the original free NUS card would be moved to the 'NUS Extra Card', proposed by Cambridge University Students' Union, NUS Treasurer Dave Lewis went against policy and removed the discounts from the original free NUS card.[3]

Other critics have focussed on the organisation's perceived failure to campaign effectively on student issues such as tuition fees and prescription costs[4] and have advocated that students and unions coordinate independently of the NUS to campaign on the national stage.[5][6]

Financial crisis

In recent years, the NUS has faced a prolonged financial crisis, caused by a coinciding of spiralling expenditure and decreasing income. A series of measures were proposed to address this, of which the most controversial included a series of changes to the constitutional and democratic processes. In 2004, two emergency conferences passed some of the changes proposed, albeit not without fierce dispute between those claiming the proposals were necessary reforms to maintain the existence of the organisation and those arguing that they were aimed at curbing democracy and involvement. The 2006 NUS Conference passed an extremely controversial policy enabling the NUS to launch a paid-for student discount card, in September, called 'NUS Extra', on sale to students at GB£10.

Durham censorship controversy

In February 2010, the NUS came under extreme criticism after two of its officers forced a proposed debate on multiculturalism at the University of Durham to be cancelled.[7][dead link] The debate, organised by the Durham Union Society - a debating society entirely separate from Durham Students' Union - was to have featured two prominent British National Party members: Yorkshire and the Humber MEP Andrew Brons and Leeds City Councillor Chris Beverley.[8] Upon hearing of BNP involvement in the debate, NUS Black Students' Officer Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy and NUS LGBT Officer Daf Adley jointly sent a letter to both the Durham Union Society and the university demanding its cancellation. The pair stated that the debate would be illegal and threatened to organise a "colossal demonstration" in tandem with Unite Against Fascism, adding that "if any students are hurt in and around this event responsibility will lie with you".[9]

The subsequent cancellation of the debate by Durham Union Society President Anna Birley on safety grounds was met with fierce backlash. NUS President Wes Streeting was prompted to personally appear before the Durham Union Society to apologise for the actions of the officers concerned, though outrage among Durham students was sufficient that a significant number protested outside the debating chamber at the time.[10] A further protest group on Facebook quickly amassed over 2,500 members. An official petition was soon lodged with Durham Students' Union to call for a referendum on disaffiliation from NUS.[11][dead link] On March 12 2010, the referendum concluded with a majority of voting students chosing to disaffiliate.[12][dead link] In January 2011, Durham decided to reaffiliate itself with the NUS.[13]

Current & recent issues

Graduate tax/Tuition fees

Under the leadership of Wes Streeting the NUS abandoned its long-standing commitment to free education and backed a graduate tax as its preferred outcome of the Browne Review into higher education funding. Before the 2010 General Election, the NUS invited candidates sign a pledge not to raise tuition fees, receiving over 1000 signatories from prospective parliamentary candidates. This became a very high profile campaign when many liberal democrat MPs, who all signed individual NUS pledges stating they would vote against any rise in tuition fees if elected, had to abstain or do the opposite as part of their coalition agreement.

The NUS, under new leader Aaron Porter, organised a national protest attended by thousands in November 2010, demanding an end to education cuts. Some protestors took the march down Whitehall to Conservative Party headquarters where there was a confrontation with the police and an occupation of the building, Millbank Tower. With an attendance of over 50,000 people, it was the largest British demonstration since the Iraq War protest. This led to various more demos until the rise in tuition fees was passed.

On 8 December 2010, the Telegraph reported that they had seen emails that suggested Aaron Porter had supported, rather than increase tuition fees, cuts of up to 80% should be made to student support packages including grants and loans.[14] Porter responded to the claims on NUS Connect that "In all of these meetings and communications we stated our firm and clear opposition to cuts" and that the distortion of the discussions was "political desperation from a coalition government losing the arguments on its own policies".[15]


The Fairtrade NUS Campaign was started by students at the University of Edinburgh in autumn 2005. The campaign, which has now been joined by numerous other students' unions in Britain, is calling for 100% of the hot beverages (tea, coffee, hot chocolate, etc.) sold by member unions of the NUS to be accredited with the Fairtrade Mark.

The campaign is supported by a number of NGOs and charities, including Oxfam, Trade Justice Movement, People & Planet and CAFOD.

While it is contested amongst the Universities about who were the original Fairtrade University,the Fairtrade foundation gave this status first and worked with Oxford Brookes University who spearheaded the movement - with the University of Edinburgh a close second.

Governance review

The 2008 Conference in Blackpool was dominated by the governance review debate and vote. The proposals were for a restructuring of the running of the Union but the vote was lost by 25 votes (a two-thirds majority was required).[16] The review was criticised for what was felt by detractors to be an attack on the organisation's democractic accountability.[17] Its supporters however defended the review as providing a more 'innovative' corporate structure which was hoped to make it more credible in negotiating policy, rather than simply 'reactive'.[18] This was not well received by many in the executive with President, Gemma Tumelty, vowing to press ahead with reform.[19] The perceived lack of progress on governance reform has also prompted Imperial College Union to hold a referendum on disaffiliation.[20]

Revised proposals were drafted and submitted to a extraordinary conference in November 2008. The conference passed the proposals by 4 votes to 1. A second extraordinary conference to ratify the proposals (the constitution requires that any changes are passed by two consecutive conferences) took place on 20 January 2009. The proposals were accepted by a huge majority and the new constitution came into force.


  1. ^ Adam Keating (2002). "What have NUS ever done for us?". Retrieved 2006-05-30. 
  2. ^ "Epigram Online". Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "NUS – Should we vote to disaffiliate? | The Cambridge Student". 2010-01-21. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  5. ^ "NUS Trustee Board: hammering in the final nails… : Education Not For Sale". 2009-12-14. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  6. ^ "Chigbo Guilty Of Election Abuses « THE TAB – – All the latest Cambridge University news online". Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  7. ^ "Security concerns stifle free speech". Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  8. ^ The British National Party - Blog - Labour party thugs dictate what university students can listen to[dead link]
  9. ^ "Multiculturalism Debate & Potential Anti-Fascist Protests - Van Mildert JCR". 2010-02-02. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  10. ^ "Student union apologises over BNP claim (From the Northern Echo)". 2010-02-10. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  11. ^ "NUS mis-handling prompts backlash". 2010-02-08. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Johnson, Daniel (28 January 2011). "60% vote to reaffiliate with NUS". Palatinate Online. Retrieved 8 May 2011. 
  14. ^ "National Union of Students secretly urged Government to make deep cuts in student grants". The Telegraph. December 8, 2010. Retrieved December 8, 2010. 
  15. ^ "NUS responds to Telegraph article". NUS Connect. December 9, 2010. Retrieved December 9, 2010. 
  16. ^ MacLeod, Donald (2008-04-01). "Blairite revolution in NUS is defeated". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-05-19. 
  17. ^ NUS Governance Review defeated at last stage | Education | News | News |
  18. ^ Lipsett, Anthea (2008-01-08). "New year, new union". The Guardian (London).,,2236692,00.html. Retrieved 2010-05-19. 
  19. ^ "Every single year you boo me. I couldn't care less". The Guardian (London). 2008-04-02.,,2270226,00.html. Retrieved 2010-05-19. 
  20. ^ Ashley Brown (2008-05-19). "Live! - Council Calls NUS Referendum". Retrieved 2010-05-31. 

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