It is NUS’ ability to adapt and reinvent itself that has enabled it not only to survive more than nine decades, but to become one of the most influential organisations in the country, recognised and respected for its campaigning ability, its diverse commercial operations, its community and voluntary work, and the support it delivers for its members.
NUS was founded in 1922, as part of a general desire for peace after the First World War. Ivison Macadam, its first president, was an ex-serviceman, whose experiences had given him an international outlook.
He and NUS’ other founders wanted to be represented in the Confederation Internationale des Etudiants, an organisation which had been formed in Prague with the aim of promoting understanding and friendship between what were perceived to be future leaders of different nations.
The first shift in NUS’ priorities came soon after its creation, when idealistic concerns bred more practical ones.
For NUS members, foreign travel was an essential part of their collaboration with other unions, so in 1930 they set up NUS Travel – the beginnings of NUS’ commercial activity.
This commercial activity became the focal point of the organisation’s work in 1965, with the establishment of Endsleigh, the specialist student insurance company.
Before Endsleigh, students found it very difficult to obtain competitive insurance for their possessions and vehicles.
In the absence of anyone else willing to give students a fair deal, NUS stepped into the breach, and created what would become one of the largest insurance retail operations in the UK.
For a prolonged period, both Endsleigh and NUS Travel provided much-needed revenue for NUS. But in the 1970s, the organisation had to examine its priorities once again. In the midst of a global economic crisis, NUS Travel went bust in 1976, and this forced NUS to sell Endsleigh (although to this day, NUS and Endsleigh maintain a close partnership).
NUS was far from obsolete, however. It had become a major force in the fight for social justice at home and abroad, having made a momentous change to its constitution in 1969.
The end of ‘no politics’
By the end of the 1960s, NUS had developed a strong reputation for the quality of its research, and was seen as one of the leading educational pressure groups in the country.
However, to some of its members, NUS lacked credibility because the leadership was reluctant to back demonstrative action and refused to rescind the ‘no politics’ clause in its constitution.
The situation came to a head at NUS National Conference in 1969.
In a tense debating hall, then-president Trevor Fisk appealed to delegates to focus on grants, teaching salaries and education at conference, while his challenger Jack Straw declared that he wanted NUS to “get off its backside and do something”.
Fisk and Straw were politically akin, but Straw was more prepared to accept the tactics used in student protest.
Straw was victorious, and the delegates went on to broaden the aims and objectives of the constitution to include ‘political’ discussion.
A new era of campaigning and protest had begun.
A new era
NUS became an integral part of the labour movement, extending its connections with trade unions and playing a key role in the liberation and anti-apartheid movements.
In 1973, it was the first national body to pass policy in favour of gay rights; in 1977, Sue Slipman was elected as the organisation’s first woman president; and in 1978, Trevor Phillips was elected as its first black president.
All the while, NUS continued to stand up for its members’ interests. In 1983, it defeated the government’s attempts to introduce tuition fees, and more recently, in 2007, it forced HSBC to drop its plans to end interest-free overdrafts for students.
It is still able to mobilise on an unrivalled scale, as demonstrated by the 50,000 students, lecturers and members of the public who took part in the 2010 protest against higher fees.
Liberation and the nations
NUS’ liberation campaigns have become an integral part of its work, with a proud record of fighting against discrimination and winning for students.
The NUS Women’s Campaign played a key role in ensuring that a move to restrict abortion rights was defeated in parliament, and in 2012 the NUS LGBT campaign was central to the decision to end the blanket ban on gay men donating blood.
NUS has a history of campaigning that stretches to all corners of the United Kingdom. In 1972, it signed a historic bilateral agreement with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to create NUS-USI, the student representative body in Northern Ireland.
A British and an Irish organisation co-operating in Northern Ireland for the benefit of all students was a huge step forward; at a time when the country was locked in conflict, this put students at the forefront of campaigning for peace and unity.
In 2011 NUS Scotland celebrated its 40th anniversary just a few months after securing an extra £11m of support for students north of the border, while in 2013 NUS Wales, which recently brought about an increase of £1,100 for the Assembly Learning Grant, celebrates its 25th anniversary.
The next chapter
Of course, NUS’ commercial activities also continue, albeit in a radically different form. NUS Services, which was set up in 1982, operates a national purchasing consortium to give students’ unions the best possible deals from suppliers.
And in 2012, a new chapter began with the launch of NUS Digital, which will allow for better communication with the organisation’s 7 million members, and support the sustainability of students’ unions in a digital age.
When Sir Ivison MacAdam founded NUS, his vision for the future was embodied by providing “hope for tomorrow”.
This vision is as important to NUS today as ever: giving a voice to students of all walks of life, making their lives better and fighting for a better environment for the students of the future.
It is a vision that remains with NUS as it looks towards its centenary in 2022.