There’s empty sloganeering and then there’s achieving real change. The first may be easy to achieve with a few Facebook ‘shares’, but to truly impact on the greater good of society, action, organisation, and flexibility are vital. One group who embodies this is the National Union of Students (NUS).
The Early Days
The years after World War I saw Britain counting the costs of the most brutal military action in recent memory. Out of this was a general desire for peace, especially amongst the student population. In 1922, ex-serviceman Ivison Macadam worked with others to form the NUS.
As President of the NUS, Macadam had a noble goal, namely for his organisation to be represented in the Prague-based Confederation Internationale des Etudiants. This Confederation’s vision to promote friendship and understanding between those perceived as the future leaders of different nations spoke strongly to the NUS’s ideals.
Merging Idealism with Pragmatism
By 1930, it had became apparent that the NUS would need to focus its priorities on commercial endeavours in order to fund the on-going travel required for international meetings. NUS Travel was set up to achieve this end, proving to be successful.
In 1965, the NUS went on to establish Endsleigh, a specialist student insurance company. This answered the needs of students who were unable to attain competitive insurance at the time and went onto become one of the largest insurance retail operations in the UK.
Sadly, the global economic crisis of the 1970s was too much for the NUS’s commercial ventures to withstand. NUS Travel spiralled into bankruptcy and Endsleigh was sold. However, the NUS and Endsleigh still enjoy a strong relationship. Ironically, it was the NUS’s more idealistic stance that would ensure its survival.
Embracing the Spirit of Protest
Perhaps in response to Macadam’s post World War I mentality, the NUS was committed to educational research rather than politics and protest. Even today, the NUS operates a strong research arm, in the fields of market research, social research, ethical research, and environmental research.
However, the climate of the 1960s was one of action through agitation, and many were increasingly unhappy with then-president Trevor Fisk’s desire to focus on issues such as grants, teachers’ salaries, and education. Fisk’s challenger, Jack Straw, insisted on protest and political discussion. This would usher in a new era of change.
A Fighting Spirit
As with its other endeavours, the NUS soon became a force to be reckoned with, especially within the liberation and anti-apartheid movements. One example of this became apparent in 1973, when the NUS became the first UK-wide to pass policy in favour of gay rights. Proving it was prepared to stake its leadership upon its principles, the NUS would go on to elect its first female president in 1977 and its first black president in 1978.
This fighting spirit has remained intact throughout the years, with the NUS forcing the government to scrap a 1983 attempt to introduce tuition fees. 2007 saw the NUS defeat HSBC’s attempt to end interest-free student overdrafts, and 2010 saw the mobilisation of 50,000 people in protest against higher fees. In 2012, the NUS LGBT campaign was integral to the lifting of an outdated blanket ban that saw gay men unable to donate blood.
Carrying its Ethos into the Future
Rather than make blanket changes in its focus, the NUS continues to wield considerable power in the political, research, and social spheres. There are even new commercial ventures, including a national purchasing consortium to give students’ unions good prices from suppliers, and NUS digital, which allows for the NUS’s 7 million members to communicate more effectively.
Macadam’s basic ethos also remains active. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the NUS joined forces in 1972, proving that two countries at war could still communicate with peace and understanding. Macadam himself would be proud.
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