With the development of the student movement throughout the sixties, and the increasingly campaigning nature of student organisations and unions, it was quite natural for colleges to come together for specific reasons.
It was during Easter Council 1966 (as NUS Conference used to be called), when areas were formally recognised. During this period of time there were regional structures, existing as constituted bodies, and it was felt that an area sub-structure, would act as representative body of local needs strengthening both the regional and national movement. The regions were funded centrally, and had an elected regional co-ordinator. It had long been recognised that their major role was of campaign co-ordination.
(2) The Structures Commission 1967
In 1967 a commission was established following a resolution passed at the previous Council to consider:
"Council believing that the establishment of viable regions is a desirable means of effecting more cooperation and communication between constituent organisations and the national executive ..."
and also to look at the overall structures of NUS.
The commission outlined the relationship between constituent organisations and their Areas, and considered that Areas should provide the following;
a) provision of basic services
b) initial point of inter-college contact
c) basis of NUS policy implementation
d) foundation for development of NUS Services
The commission was particularly concerned that the relationship between CM's and both regions and areas should be clear so as to avoid them becoming divorced from their members.
The commission also considered the funding of areas, and looked at a system of increasing NUS subscription and handing this on to the areas. (Curiously enough, it has been over twenty years before this system was adopted). The Commission recommended the setting up of a development fund within NUS, to fund area projects which their present resources could not meet.
(3) THE DECLINE OF REGIONS
By 1973, it was recognised that the regions had ceased to function in any effective way. There were a number of reasons for this; however the rising prominence of areas, having a greater ability than large faceless regions, to relate to colleges was a major factor. This was not to say that the areas created post 1966 did not face their own problems, but discussions about the role of areas and their effectiveness had a high profile. Coupled with this, areas were taking a major role in the large scale mobilisations that occurred between 1972-73 over issues of autonomy and grants.
Areas began to take on more work often in close cooperation with the field officers (today the NUS staff regional officers) whose main responsibilities were training, union development and casework.
By 1974 further structural changes in NUS meant the final demise of the regions, and the setting up of the sector policy conferences.
Furthermore, during this period some areas started to employ sabbaticals, and a Vice-President Areas was created on the national executive.
(4) The Ascendancy of the Areas
Throughout 1975 and 1976 there was a marked development of a number of areas, and an increasing level of expectation from the colleges for the areas to provide clear initiatives and co-ordination for campaigns, the representation of students to local government and college authorities, the media and other necessary groups and organisations.
Conversely, many areas were not in a position to do this and were severely underdeveloped .
In December 1976, the Areas debate at the Llandudno conference, attempted to clarify the role of function of areas and construct a working area infrastructure. It was agreed that the role of areas should be:
a) The development of strong student unions
b) The co-ordination of campaign work
c) Work with LEA's and Trades Councils
d) Support for NUS work at a national level
Further recommendations entailed a basic minimum of 0.6% of college income for area affiliations, area conveners being able to attend conference and submit questions to the executive report, all affiliates of NUS being affiliated to their respective area, and union development should become a priority for areas beside grants and cuts. National Areas Council was also given more formal recognition.
(5) Development Campaigns
The launch of the FE development campaign in the late 70's, gave areas central resources to assist in the development of colleges within their localities. Further to this the NUS development plan concentrated training and casework on the area organisations. As time passed, it was now very apparent that levels of development throughout the areas network was severely lacking in uniformity.
In early 1981 an areas working party was established, to examine perceived area 'problems'. These particularly centred around funding. Systems of central funding were proposed but eventually rejected, on the grounds that a smooth mechanism of redistribution was not seen as feasible. The most controversial issue was the relationship of areas to NUS, particularly over the formation and implementation of policy. It was felt that Areas should be free to implement NUS policy in the way they felt was more effective for their colleges, but not pass directly conflicting area policy.
It was also around this time that some areas set up Regional Areas Councils.
At the Easter Conference of 1981 a full scale debate of areas was prioritized. The outcome was a rejection of any scheme of central funding, NUS to produce an area officers manual in consultation with NAC, an increase in the Area development fund, and greater priority from NUS to the work of areas.
By 1985 there were 43 area organisations recognised by NUS; undertaking very different types of functions, and illustrating a wide disparity of development. There was also considerable frustration that there was lack of resources being provided to the areas from NUS.
At the December conference of 1985 a document was proposed entitled "Towards A National Union - The Organisation of an Area Campaigning NUS." It's basic strategy was a system of developing NUS at the local level through area organisation. The document proposed constitutional ratification of the Areas Political Convention (a body which had just recently come into existence) with a role to provide a consultative forum to the work of the area network and to also act as an advisory body to the national executive on the implementation of conference mandates. The second major proposal was to set up the Central Areas Development Fund (CADF) at NUS HQ, with a greater financial injection than the previous Areas Development Fund. Importantly, this allowed areas to apply for a grant or loan towards the cost of a sabbatical, so ensuring an area could develop with the resource of a full time officer. The Areas were also given the right to elect three representatives to sit on the CADF committee, to decide on the allocations.
(6) Central Funding
This issue of area funding has always been a highly contentious and vocal concern throughout the history of the area network. During this time, central funding has always been raised as a method of providing areas with a stable financial system. The philosophy behind it is simple. If areas are to be seen as taking a major role in the work of the national union, then a commitment should be made from the CM's to affiliate at an appropriate level to allow this to happen. Therefore as a condition of membership they should be a member of both NUS and the area.
However, many of the reasons why central funding had been rejected in the past was that areas feared their autonomy would be undermined and they would simply become branches of the national union. Also, there had been a general feeling that the distribution of monies would be difficult, time-consuming and on the whole bureaucratic.
At the Spring conference of 1989, with affirmation at the following Winter Conference, proposals on central funding of areas were discussed. These instructed finance committee to levy an increase of 1 1/2% of a CM's block grant on the current NUS affiliation fee, and to construct a system of distribution based on area need. However, due to the way the resolution was made and after legal advice which gave an opinion that the constitution had not been amended properly, central funding of areas was abandoned.
The number of area organisations has dwindled since this period of time with the creation of ‘super areas’ covering a number of regional boundries and also the decline in the role of LEAs in relation to further and higher education. From the period of 1989 when there was a total of 38 functioning areas to the 20 that exist today.
Hopefully, this brief history will provide a useful context in understanding the development of the area network, and in aiding you in your work as an area officer.