NUS Commission on Democracy

Submission by the National Postgraduate Committee

On behalf of the National Postgraduate Committee we are pleased to respond to the NUS Commission on Democracy. This policy response was written following consultation with delegate members of NPC at a policy workshop on the 4th November 2001 in University College Worcester. We hope you find our comments helpful.

James Groves, General Secretary
Chris Neville-Smith, Communications Officer
National Postgraduate Committee


Executive Summary

The roles of the governing bodies of NUS are poorly defined and should be changed to reflect clearer objectives. The NEC should function more like a board of management, with all members privy to the same information.

National Council should have a stronger role of scrutiny and policy-making between Conferences. Its power over the NEC should be increased, including giving it the power to propose motions of no confidence in NEC members. NEC members should not have voting rights on National Council. A system of proportional representation should be retained at either NEC or National Council level.

More use should be made of Sector Conferences. Regions and Areas should be merged and the role of the new Regions should be strengthened.


The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is the representative body for postgraduate students in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated students unions from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers unions.


The roles of the governing bodies of NUS are currently poorly defined; their functions are in urgent need of review. Neither the National Executive Committee nor National Council have structures that enable them to function effectively as management boards, policymaking fora or scrutinising bodies. Still less do they serve as a point of contact for activists. The consequence of this is that many affiliates and student union officers do not feel that they have any useful contact with NUS.

The unions that have easiest contact with NUS are generally those based in London (where all full-time NUS officers and all staff except Regional Officers are based) and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (with their respective special regions).

National Executive Committee

The National Executive Committee of NUS should function more effectively as a management board. All management decisions of any importance should be made by the full National Executive Committee, rather than the National President, Secretary and Treasurer acting as a senior management group and acting alone. Furthermore, all National Executive Committee members should have access to as much information as the President of NUS has, and any information to justify decisions of the NEC should be provided to NEC members well in advance of the meeting that makes the decision.

The existing arrangement whereby the General Secretary of NPC and President of MSU can attend and speak at meetings of the National Executive Committee has been very productive in the past, and we recommend that this be formalised.

The National President currently has too much power within the NEC. He/she should not have sole discretion in allocating responsibilities to NEC members; the full NEC, subject to approval by National Council, should make these decisions. The power of the President to make rulings on the Constitution and other rules, with no method of appealing against these decisions, should be removed due to the intrinsic conflict of interest. Such decisions should be made by the full NEC (if this power is to stay within the NEC at all).

The National Executive Committee should not normally make NUS policy. The function of an executive is to implement, and decide how to implement, the policy it is mandated to follow, rather than make policy itself. Policymaking should normally be left to National Council and National Conference; where the NEC must form policy in an emergency, this should be ratified or overturned by National Council at its next meeting.

The large size of the NEC makes it difficult to properly function as an executive body. Key decisions often end up being made by smaller ad-hoc groups.

The NEC would be made far more accessible to local unions if Regional Convenors (as described below) were added to the NEC. To reduce the NEC to a manageable size it would then be necessary to abolish the Block of Twelve. However, some NEC members have expressed concern over the loss of proportional representation this would entail. In recent years candidates have only been elected to single-post positions with the backing of either Labour Students or the far-left factions. Therefore, any such moves to remove the Block of Twelve would have to be accompanied by effective systems of proportional representation elsewhere in NUS structures, such as our proposed new structure for National Council (as described below).

Whilst this Commission does not cover the democratic structures of the Liberation Campaigns, NPC is concerned by the lack of accountability the Liberation Campaigns have towards NUS as a whole. Liberation Campaigns should have the power to make autonomous policy and campaign on it, but when Liberation Campaigns spend NUS and ultimately affiliates money on campaigns, NUS should be able, via National Council and National Conference, to ensure they remain within the NUS financial regulations and the law. We would recommend that the Liberation Campaigns start reviewing their own structures.

The policy for abridged NEC minutes to be placed on the NUS website should be enforced.

National Council

If the NEC is to function as an executive, National Council must be strengthened as a policymaking and scrutinising body that is representative of the student body.

By far the most urgent change that must be made to National Council is to remove voting rights from the NEC members. NEC members votes make up about one-third of the votes on National Council when attendance is low, NEC members often account for more than half the votes. This defeats the purpose of a body that is supposed to hold the NEC to account. Obviously the requirement that NEC members attend National Council should remain in force.

The membership of National Council should be as representative of the student body as possible, especially if the Block of Twelve is removed from the NEC. Students of all political stances should be represented on National Council, so significant sections of National Council should be elected by STV in blocks of at least twelve. We suggest a block of twelve HE National Council members and a block of twelve FE National Council members, elected at Sector Conferences.

There would also be good reason to have representatives from the NUS Regions, the Liberation Campaigns, NPC and MSU, to make sure that the needs of particular sectors of students are not overlooked.

National Council meetings should last more than one day NPC meetings, including policy workshops before and after the meetings, are held over weekends and are very productive in canvassing the opinions of its members. National Council should continue to be required to meet at least three times a year, and there should be provisions for ordinary members of National Council to call additional emergency meetings if they consider it necessary.

Ordinary members of National Council should have the ability to submit motions to National Council a motion should be in order if proposed and seconded by two Council members. In the event that this results in more motions being submitted than there is time to discuss them, a priority ballot amongst the members should be used. Motions should be allowed to be on any matter than can be proposed to Conference (except, of course, motions that conflict with Conference policy or have already been voted down by Conference), and should become NUS policy if passed, pending ratification at Conference.

The scrutinising powers of National Council over the NEC should be strengthened. In addition to the existing powers of referring back reports, censuring NEC members and removing responsibilities, National Council should have the power to:

(a) propose a motion of no confidence in an NEC member to the annual session of National Conference;

(b) call an emergency session of National Conference to propose a motion of no confidence in an NEC member;

(c) in extreme cases, remove an NEC member immediately, pending an appeal to an emergency session of National Conference.

National Council minutes should be available to all members of NUS. The quorum should be reduced to a level where it is realistic for all or nearly all National Council meeting to be quorate. If National Council is inquorate, a meeting should take place anyway with all decisions being made in an advisory capacity.

National Conference

The large size of Conference has made it very clumsy to operate and very expensive to run, but reducing the size of Conference could only be done at the expense of its representativeness. We feel, therefore, that attention should be directed towards making Conference more efficient.

The outcome of Conference is influenced enormously by the discretion exercised by the Steering Committee in setting the agenda. In particular, the lack of guidelines on placing motions under policy headings prior to the priority ballot, and the lack of rules surrounding compositing, means that the motions eventually discussed are largely at the discretion of Steering Committee. At present, however, there is no way of holding members of Steering Committee to account for their decisions, nor is there any way of scrutinising their work. We recommend that Steering Committee should include observers from external organisations, as Elections Committee does. These observers should be entitled to attend any meeting of all or part of Steering Committee, and attend all events organised by Steering Committee. Should the observers have any reasons to believe any decisions were made unfairly, they should be able to report this to Conference during NUS Conference, or to Constituent Members during the rest of the year.

More use should be made of Sector Conferences. Quite apart from the fact that smaller conferences are generally more constructive and less confrontational than larger ones, it is a waste of time for FE delegates to vote on issues that are only of concern to HE delegates, and vice versa. The VP Education and VP FEUD should be replaced with a VP Higher Education and VP Further Education respectively, who would be elected at HE and FE Sector Conferences respectively and report to HENC and FENC respectively between Conferences.

Greater use should be made of forming HE- and FE-specific policy through the Sector Conferences. We recommend extending the length of Sector Conferences to at least two full sessions of National Conference (for example, the Wednesday morning and afternoon sessions).

As postgraduates make up a significant proportion of Higher Education students, there should be an ex-officio NPC representative on HENC.

One of Conferences key roles is to hold the NEC to account by scrutinising its work in Commissions and then debating its Report and Plan, but these matters frequently end up not being discussed at all. This should stop; it should be ensured these items are always discussed.

Too much time is spent at Conference discussing policy that is obviously going to pass or fall. When policy has been overwhelmingly passed or rejected by National Council or a Sector Conference, there should be a mechanism for ratifying these decisions without a discussion unless anybody proposes otherwise.

Candidates for NEC elections should have expenditure limits for election publicity, with expenses up to this limit paid for by NUS. The current system gives an unfair advantage to candidates with financial backing from political factions.

NPC and MSU should be entitled to send observers to Conference who are entitled to speak on matters concerning their sectors. As the Liberation Campaigns are entitled to send their entire committees, there is a good case for allowing NPC and MSU to send more than one rep each.

Regional Representation

Some members of NPC have found regional representation through Areas to be very useful in getting information about NUS at a local level. However, the roles of Areas are confusing and they are applied inconsistently across the country. Regional Conferences, on the other hand, are applied consistently over the country, but they seem to have very little role except in electing National Council reps once a year and holding informal discussions with various members of the NEC.

We therefore recommend that Areas and Regions should be merged. All Constituent Members in an English Region should be entitled to send delegates to a Regional Conference that elects a Regional Executive and Regional Convenor. Convenors should, NUS finances permitting, be sabbatical positions, working closely with the regional staff members. The Regional Office should in future be the principal source of information and support for local unions.

The power of Regional Conference should be strengthened. Delegates should be able to submit questions to the NEC in advance of the meeting and expect answers at the Regional Conference. Delegates should also have the power to mandate office holders elected by their conference (such as delegates to National Council), including mandating delegates to propose motions of censure at National Council.

The English Regions should work alongside the existing Special Regions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Possible compositions for the NEC and National Council


President, Secretary, Treasurer, VP Welfare (elected at National Conference)
VP Higher Education (elected at HE Sector Conference)
VP Further Education (elected at FE Sector Conference)
8 English Regional Convenors (elected at Regional Conferences)
President of NUS Scotland, President of UCMC and Convenor of NUS-USI
Convenors of the 4 Liberation Campaigns (elected at each Liberation Campaign Conference)

Total 21

National Council

12 delegates from the HE sector (elected by STV at HE Sector Conference)
12 delegates from the FE sector (elected by STV at FE Sector Conference)
4 delegates from each English Region (elected by STV at Regional Conferences)
4 delegates from each of NUS Scotland, UCMC and NUS-USI (elected at their Conferences)
4 delegates from each Liberation Campaign (elected at each Liberation Campaign Conference)
3 delegates from the Mature Students Union
3 delegates from the National Postgraduate Committee

Total 90