Oh look, it’s another National Union of Students general election campaign. As someone who was involved in, then worked in student politics and student unions for most of the 90s, it’s somewhat of a surprise that NUS are carrying on with this, given the lack of success they had in the past. Of course, most of them wouldn’t have been born when NUS tried the ‘Target 70′ campaign in the 1992 election, highlighting the constituencies where the student vote could swing the result. It was a great campaign, if you forget the fact that election occurred when students were on vacation, and the backlash from the re-elected Tory government almost destroyed student unions as a whole. There have been others since, but its worth pointing out that spending a lot of time getting politicians to make pledges and not much on making sure students actually voted in 2010 helped create the situation we had today.

My favourite memory of the odd way in which NUS campaigns comes from 1999. The first Scottish Parliament elections had just occurred, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in coalition talks to form an administration. The Lib Dems had gone into that election promising to get rid of tuition fees in Scotland, while Labour were perfectly happened to keep them, because their government had just introduced them across the UK. NUS naturally sprang into action and asked student unions across the country to write, fax or email Jim Wallace (then leader of the Scottish Lib Dems) to tell him to ‘hold firm’. The whole campaign made almost no mention of the party he was negotiating with, and definitely didn’t ask anyone to contact them and ask them to give way. That would have involved NUS telling people the Labour Party might be in the wrong on something, and that would be unthinkable.

However, it is important to point out here NUS isn’t a union the way most people (including some in the media who should know better) understand it. Individual students aren’t members of NUS – instead, its membership is the various student unions at FE and HE institutions across the country. The individual unions (and guilds and associations and committees and JCRs and whatever else) all exist independently of NUS and aren’t local branches of it. NUS is basically a membership organisation allowing its individual members to benefit from the economies of scale can bring. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it used to be that you could only be part of NUS Services Ltd (NUSSL) – the body that negotiated cheap beer deals for student bars, amongst other things – if you were a member of NUS. The same goes for welfare, legal, training, research etc services provided by NUS – by pooling together to provide specialist areas of support, NUS means individual unions can do a much better job at representing and helping their members (who are individual students).

However, access to all of that also involves being part of the political and campaigning part of NUS (and to be fair, there are several areas where NUS single issue campaigning and lobbying has worked) which is one of the oddest political arenas I’ve ever encountered. I know there have been some changes to the way NUS works, but the principal decision-making body is still NUS Conference, at which each individual union is elected by a number of delegates chosen at election by its members. The one thing Labour Students has always been good at as an organisation is getting its members elected as NUS conference delegates (even if in many cases people don’t realise they’re voting for a Labour Students candidate). When Conference comes around, Labour Students usually have a big enough bloc of delegates to pretty much ensure that whoever they want gets elected to the various important positions (though they normally let a couple of ‘independents’ get elected to some of the posts, just to make it look balanced) which means that NUS campaigns do their very best to not make Labour look bad, in return for which the senior members of Labour Students often get nice political careers afterwards.

That’s why the NUS leadership spent most of the 90s trying to push the organisation’s policy away from supporting free education, why Labour are never criticised for introducing and raising fees and why we were all being exhorted to contact Jim Wallace rather than Donald Dewar in 1999. But what it also means is that you shouldn’t tar all student organisations with the same brush. The NUS might be happy to do Labour’s dirty work for it, but that doesn’t apply to individual unions at institutions. They’re normally just doing the best they can for their members and are part of NUS because the benefits outweigh the costs, not because they’re trying to get themselves parachuted into a safe seat in a few years time.

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Tony Blair is right on Europe – Jonathan Calder makes some wise points on how a referendum on Europe would be a disaster for this country.
Try, try again – Why forcing tests on children and telling them they’re failures repeatedly, isn’t good for them.
Mediocre Failures – Another take on why expecting some children to be branded as failures is a terrible idea.
Is the future of America a crummy service job stamping on a human face, forever? – When Presidential candidates from both sides seem to think nobody is complete without a job, is there another way?
‘Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind’ – Interesting Guardian interview with writer Matthew Crawford about how quiet space has become another commodity available only to the wealthy.

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Something that occurred to me while reading the Browne book, but it seems so obvious I can’t believe others haven’t noticed it so I wonder if I’m missing something.

Anyway, by my reckoning bringing in school vouchers either requires an increase in the Government’s education budget or a cut in the funding given to each pupil currently in state education. Here’s my thinking:

The proponents of school vouchers say that they would be a universal benefit given to the parents of every child. However, at present, not every child is within the state education sector because they’re being educated independently, and the cost of that is being met by the parents or some other non-state actor. So, if we assume the total state funding for education is T, the total number of children to be educated is A and the number of children being privately educated to be B, the average funding per student in the state sector is T/(A-B), but if vouchers are brought in, the average amount per student in all sectors is T/A. So, unless T is increased, the average amount being spent on children currently in the state sector will drop.

Am I right, or have I missed something very obvious?

(Update: Dan Carr has looked at the issue and found an answer to my questions)

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Worth Reading 121: Initially only available within the M25

‘Galaxy Quest': The Oral History – The cast and crew explain how it came to be.
The Higher Sociopathy – “Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.”
Education should be about progress, not prostituted as a means to earn more – Alex Andreou on the value of education as a good in itself.
How ‘competitiveness’ became one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary culture – On a similar subject, how we now reduce everything to competition.
The Suburbs Will Die: One Man’s Fight to Fix the American Dream – How sprawling American suburbs can’t pay for their own upkeep and are an economic disaster waiting to happen.

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Worth Reading 80: Around the world

How the mainstream media derailed addressing child abuse – Why talk about real crimes and ruined lives when you can instead obsess over what it means to you, instead?
Keeping the Lights On: a look at UKIP’s energy policy evidence base – Are you surprised to find it doesn’t have much of one, and what it does have is misrepresented and misinterpreted?
The Very Existence of Local Government Hangs in the Balance – The leader of Brighton and Hove Council explains how a government that pretends to want localism is actually removing any possibility for it.
On Subjectivity: Wild Swans, Escher Girls and mansplaining – Ro Smith on the importance of breaking out of your own perspective and understanding that you don’t know how others see the world.
Education is losing its validity as a way forward for the younger generations – At the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen argue that “because education cannot meet employment aspirations its main purpose has become social control over youth”.

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Worth reading 66: Geoff Hurst takes an arrow to the eye

Wind turbine syndrome: a classic ‘communicated’ disease – I’m shocked – shocked, I tell you – to discover that something James Delingpole and other contrarian trolls believe in has no evidence to back it up.
10 myths of the UK’s far right – Daniel Trilling in the Guardian outlines some widely-repeated opinions about the BNP and their ilk that don’t stand up to much scrutiny.
Facebook friends network ‘quadruples voting behaviour’ – Interesting study in the US about different online prompts and how they increase the likelihood of someone voting – the original paper it’s based on is here.
English Baccalaureate – questions outstanding – Stephen Williams MP shows that not all Lib Dem MPs have drunk the Govite Kool-Aid.
The Myth of the European Court of Human Rights’ “War on Britain” – Very good piece by Alex Massie. Worth passing on to any nutters of your acquaintance (some of whom appear to be in the Cabinet, sadly) who advocate Britain withdrawing from/ignoring the ECHR

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Worth Reading 60: In a minute

Lose your money in the best ever IPO, praise China, cry woe for Europe, then renounce scarcity and move into education.

Prospectus for Silicon Valley’s next hot tech IPO, where nothing could possibly go wrong – “Trust us: Once you invest in Ponzify, you’ll have a difficult time investing your money anywhere else ever again.”
British parliamentarians queue up up to suck up to Chinese tyranny – Jonathan Calder finds some disturbing behaviour from elected representatives.
The failure of European centrism: Towards a hypothesis of historical recurrence – Fantastic post from Nosemonkey, looking at the current crisis in Europe, historical roots and parallels for it, and the dangerous road this leads us all down.
The end of artificial scarcity – Fascinating post on the FT’s Alphaville blog, but I’m sure an economist will be along in the comments to tell me why it’s all wrong.
Back to basics? It’s time to start basing education policy on evidence, not fads and dogma – I do wonder sometimes if Tom Chivers is at the Telegraph on an exchange programme from somewhere much more sensible than their commentary usually is.

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