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Report from the York Union: ‘Tom Harwood: The NUS in Crisis’

Source: Eventbrite
Source: Eventbrite
Source: Eventbrite

On Tuesday 18th April, the York Union hosted Tom Harwood; a Second Year Politics student at Durham and one of three candidates for NUS presidency. The Times recently called Harwood’s proposed policies a “manifesto of mockery” because some of the seemly satirical aims he wishes to pursue as NUS president. However, Harwood opposes the given status of a “joker candidate” by the media, instead defending himself as a serious candidate for presidency. He aims to reform the NUS, largely through introducing moderation, inclusion and credibility to the Union.

Harwood argued that the NUS has failed students due to a lack of representation in the current system. He stated that the University of York had a 6% turnout to vote for our NUS delegates, which is (surprisingly) “quite good for a university”. Conversely, the University of Manchester had a 2.5% turnout. In other terms, this means merely 1,000 students out of 40,000 exercised their right to vote for student representation. As well as low voter turnout across all universities, Harwood discussed how you can “count of two hands the number of university SUs that aren’t a member of the NUS”, four of which left last year. Despite the clear lack of interest students have towards the NUS, nothing is being done to change the current status quo and promote engagement in student politics.

Harwood stated that the fundamental problems of the NUS are self-perpetuating; “students have unrepresentative leadership which attracts further unrepresentative people”. Moreover, these are unrepresentative people with ‘extreme’ views that do not accurately represent the views of the majority student population. He argued that a key aspect that the NUS has failed to represent student issues on is tuition fees; despite being opposed to these fees when they were introduced in 1998, the price of them has sharply risen whilst there have been no wins for the NUS. Harwood largely put this lose down to a constant desire to “organise a street protest rather than sit down and actually sort something out”.

Furthermore, he argued that the preconceived bigotries leaders of the Union have towards those in government (particularly Conservatives with moderate views), mean peaceful negotiations are undesired and hugely unsuccessful. He argued that stubborn, extreme views voiced by unrepresentative people in the wrong manner make meaningful change for students virtually impossible in the current NUS system. Harwood believes that the key for NUS reform is to be open, tolerant and understanding of where the government’s point of view is coming from, otherwise there is no way a positive compromise can be decided upon.

Harwood believes that “the NUS is in crisis and it is failing students” because it is not moderate, credible or inclusive. However, he promises to make the Union all of these things if he becomes President. He argues that his fresh ideas can reform an institution that is “unwilling to change”. He states that he can be more inclusive by “[attracting] more people than have ever been involved in this organisation”. He is more credible as he has “run [and won] national campaigns, worked in Parliament and with the government, [and knows] how to work with people to achieve things” as opposed to continuous protest. He stands for something new, something “radically moderate”, and something that can create multiple wins for students.

Much of Harwood’s manifesto has come under large media scrutiny for being humorous. Yes, policies such as ‘Ensuring every lecture begins with a pledge of allegiance to the NUS’ and ‘Make Freddo’s 10p again’ do come across as rather comical, yet the media does not recognise that his campaign stressed the need to “make the NUS fun again”. Harwood explained how the NUS is currently too serious, shown strongly through its involvement in many political and international issues that do not have anything to do with students, such as its strongly voiced opinions about Trident. Harwood recognised this criticism, but defended his campaign stating that no student wants to get involved with an organisation that takes itself “so incredibly seriously”, where anyone who talks outside of the status quo gets hounded on social media and shunned.

However, he stressed that many of this policies are realistic and credible, referencing key aims to take international students out of migration statistics as well as raising the rate at which one has to pay back tuition fees to the average wage of £26,500. An important issue for Harwood is student housing, stating it to be a “national disgrace” that house prices are rising at the rate they are. To solve this, the NUS must make links with Think Tanks and other national campaigns, as well as ‘naming and shaming’ dodgy landlords, in order to present a way in which Student Unions can work with local councils to improve housing prospects. Furthermore, the candidate discussed his policy to “Lobby for lower taxes on alcohol in student bars” rather seriously. He said that, should it be successful, it could influence students to drink in the safe, monitored environment of a student bar, rather than irresponsibly in unsafe environments.

Throughout the majority of his talk, Harwood was open to questions from the audience. He stated he would make sure the NUS is willing and ready to call out anti-Semitism when it happens and to reach out to the Union of Jewish Students, in order to combat the anti-Semitism crisis within the Union. He believes that the current NUS is no way near the ‘centre-ground’ of where student political opinion is, being far more radically left-wing than what student opinion actually is. He was also asked “what does the term queer mean…as a representative?”. To this, he maintained a neutral stance and denied giving a dictionary definition, claiming that the LGBTQ liberation campaign is an autonomous campaign this is separate to his pursuit of NUS presidency, although he would support LGBTQ issues should they arise.

Tom Harwood’s message was very clear, and actually made a lot of sense. The NUS’s current instinct to jump into street protests (as opposed to negotiations) as a way of getting ‘all students” voices heard in the political sphere is immature, so it’s hardly a surprise that continuous direct action is scarcely taken seriously by the government. Also, the regular need to voice (sometimes extreme) opinions on matters than do not directly involve students damages the credibility of the Union, and takes importance away from the real issues students face (such as tuition fees). Furthermore, walking into negotiations with preconceived prejudices that the government actively dislike and want the worst for students is evidently a bad start, and more than likely to get the Union no way near achieving what it wants to achieve, making a win for students impossible. Therefore, this current system needs to reform.

The majority of students do not have the same interests as national politicians, so why should the NUS pursue the same issues as the government? Tom Harwood presents a more realistic, credible and representative future for the NUS, and his campaign should be taken seriously by the voting delegates in the upcoming election.

The NUS holds their National Conference 2017 on 25th-27th April in Brighton, where delegate will be electing political leadership for the NUS for the year ahead.