The main point of contention in the NUS’ decision to throw its considerable weight behind the In campaign is the assertion that, as a body which claims to represent every student in the UK, the union should not choose sides in a debate as potentially divisive as this one. In fairness, the logic of this argument is not difficult to grasp. Though it is probably fair to say that, being one of the most notoriously left wing organisations in the country, most who consider themselves to be represented by the NUS would count themselves as pro-Europe. A sizable percentage of the student population are sceptical of, if not openly opposed to, EU membership. With that in mind, would neutrality not have been the most desirable course? In a word, no.
The NUS has a long and ongoing history of activism, and since the question of Europe is one with the potential to affect students in a very real way, there is no good reason for the union to remain silent simply because an absolute consensus is unlikely to be reached. To respond in such a way would set a dangerous precedent. There are other campaigns currently being pushed by the NUS – votes for sixteen year olds and opposition to A-level reform spring to mind – which, though widely agreed upon, a minority of students would likely oppose, and would therefore fall under the same category as the pro-Europe movement.
If all of the NUS’s campaigns are considered with the same scrutiny as the In campaign, the union’s power to affect change would be seriously undermined, and this could lead to the NUS becoming more timid in its decision making, and less dynamic in its actions.Admittedly, the in/out debate is more of a hot button issue than most, but let us not forget that this decision is not one which was made solely by an elite group of union officials, without regard for the opinions of students.
At the most recent national conference, delegates voted “overwhelmingly” in favour of the proposal, and they were absolutely right to do so. The millions of students currently benefitting from EU funding for higher education and research would be worse off if the Out campaign achieved their goal, as would the tens of thousands of UK students who are able to study in Europe without the financial burden of a visa, and this is before we even come to the difficulties which would face the already underrepresented EU students studying in our universities.
Those who would fight for an EU exit would work against the interests of their fellow students. The NUS has acted exactly as we should expect it to.