As you may or may not be aware, the NUS holds a national conference every year.
This year, the conference has been ‘digitised’ due to coronavirus. In 2014, the NUS “overwhelmingly” passed a policy that forced delegations to the NUS conference to be made up of 50% self-identifying females to be allowed entry.
Those sent to the NUS conference are overwhelmingly executive members of the elected student union, in no uncertain terms mandating a 50% gender split of student unions’ elected officials.
Yet a policy like this is discriminatory for one simple reason: what are you meant to do, realistically, if no women run for elected office in your student union? While this is far less likely to happen in the University environment, this is the conundrum that the college delegation I spoke with encountered.
Made up of a trans man and two first-generation immigrants, the delegation already saw themselves as underrepresented in the NUS being a college instead of a higher education institute. All of them were clearly gutted to not be able to attend the conference this year, pointing out how unfair the rule was seeing as no women ran for any positions in their student union.
Despite being democratically elected and being one of the only college delegations in their area, the NUS still refused them access even when they complained. “I wanted to learn more… and see how I can go further and share my knowledge with others”, one of the delegates said. They described the policy as a “game of identity”, pointing out that it “reduced [us] to just gender when there are just so many other factors”.
“I am so happy to be in my position as a trans man… because so often LGBTQ+ representation gets swept over, but I also wonder how many other student unions have trans people as one of their senior executives?… If it was truly about equality, then surely they’d be encouraging transgender delegates to go.”
This quota system set by the NUS doesn’t support institutions like this college – who, at times, are unable to field the candidates that the NUS wants to see. The main debate I see on meeting diversity quotas is the very core of it, as to whether or not they support the group that they feel have been marginalised, but what about marginalising other groups? Certainly incentivising the number of trans students attending these conferences should be a priority for the NUS.
The fact of the matter is that the NUS policy is avoiding the fact that intersectional diversity is more important than the binary gender structure it has built itself around. The NUS clearly isn’t cognizant of this fact. Promoting more meaningful diversity on a wide basis of groups should be the NUS’ policy, as students come from all walks of life, not just binary gender groups. Like one of the college delegates said, this form of politics devolves into nothing more than a point-scoring contest for levels of diversity.
Young people, especially those from highly marginalized and vulnerable communities, who want to get involved in their student communities at the college level already face significant challenges. These are only exacerbated by the NUS rules.
The NUS Press Office, in response to an email I sent about this issue, stated they had received no appeals to their Democratic Procedures Committee (ran by students). The policy of 50% representation for women was reinforced in 2019, again being voted in by the conference. “NUS staff don’t set the rules; we simply enact them and as these are the rules agreed by Conference we are unable to permit exemptions… speeches by delegates at Conference 2019 made clear that there was concern that if [the policy] was removed there would be less women present in or democratic decision making. This is evident after all, in our own UK parliament.”