Until recently, my knowledge of student politics has been extremely limited. I’m neither heavily involved in my own students’ union nor with the NUS to any degree. When it comes to the NUS, while this is the body which represents us nationally, for some of us average students, it’s difficult to find out the kind of information which will lead to a greater interest in national student politics.
The average student is who Jack Matthews had in mind when he set up TheyWorkForStudents last year. This still growing venture is quickly gaining a reputation as a concise, accessible and importantly accurate website regarding the NUS. TheyWorkForStudents classes itself as “a simple project – to bring openness, accountability and accessibility to the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom (NUS)” In fact, it was through Jack’s website that Zahid Raja (NUS Block of 15 candidate) and I found out that any student has the right to request to sit in on any NEC NUS meeting as an Accredited Observer; a valuable experience for Zahid, as these may be the meetings that he himself will be attending. On March 1st, Zahid, Jack and I did exactly that, and we caught up with Jack afterwards to find out more about the motivations behind TheyWorkForStudents.
As someone who had developed a keen interest in the NUS, it was only natural when Jack decided to run for an NUS delegate at the start of summer. “Over the summer holidays, I started to research more about the NUS, and I realised that it was actually very hard to find out what went on in the NUS how things worked, what the procedures were… and so I wrote it into my manifesto that I would campaign to get the NUS to publish the contact details of the officers, because I thought it was wrong that we had these national representatives and yet there is no way for students to contact them.”
Jack specified in his manifesto that he would lobby the NUS to make this information available, and if they didn’t, then he would do it himself. “Having looked into it for so long, I knew where the information was but I knew that it had taken me hours and hours to find that information.” Putting his long hours of research into work, TheyWorkForStudents was founded, and has since become known as an excellent resource. Its founder made their main aims very clear; to create a resource which would be available to all students, whether they want to hold their representatives to account, or get involved with NUS directly. For Jack “the NUS is a bit of a closed shop at the moment, and it shouldn’t be. The procedures are there so that anybody can get involved, but they’re just not widely known by people.”
This lack of information is precisely why some feel the NUS is not representative of the national student body. “People can’t see how to get involved, how to scrutinise those that are in power, how to hold them accountable – all important things if we’re going to have a democratic representative union for the students across our country. If they can’t find out how to get involved, then it’s not really representative of them.. you can only really speculate about how people do get involved, and I think I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s a self-perpetuating group but at the same time the people who represent (NEC) are not representative of people in the wider student movement; that’s simply due to lack of information.”
Accessibility, communication and involvement are three clear aims which TheyWorkForStudents strive to achieve, and for Jack, the venture has so far been a success. “People are using it. People are talking about it.” This was something we saw at the NEC meeting, when several officers approached Jack to speak to him, showing that the site is clearly recognised among those in the higher echelons of the NUS. Despite its success, the future of the website is a concern for Jack. “At the moment, it is just me, but I would like to see other people who want the same things as I do, who want to see an open, an accountable and an accessible NUS get in touch with me. The fact is, I may not be a student in 6 months time… and I think this a project which needs to be led by students.”
However, could TheyWorkForStudents potentially play a greater role in scrutinising the NUS leadership? “I think it can, it does and it will do more in the future purely because we’re providing information that is current unavailable to students. I recognise that not everyone in the student movement likes reading constitutions and minutes of meetings, but the fact is they must be made available.”
Arguably, Zahid Raja’s presence at this month’s NEC meeting is evidence of how such information made public can increase the participation of students standing for NUS elections. It was particularly important for Zahid “that students thinking about going for Block actually get a flavour of what these meetings are about. Knowing the changes you want to make and knowing how to make them are two very different things. I really think that this opportunity should be highlighted, and I’m a little bit concerned that this hasn’t really been made clear on the NUS connect website, and the fact that it took TheyWorkForStudents to point this out clearly shows that we need to do more for transparency. If I’m elected, I really want to open up the NUS and it’s NEC, not just to sabbs or officers but to it’s membership – everyday students like you and me!”
Do you feel that the NUS needs to be more accessible, or would you be interested to get involved with TheyWorkForStudents?