On 8-10 April the annual National Union of Students conference will take place in Sheffield. The student movement must take this as an opportunity to set NUS on a new, decisive course.
The NUS leadership took a battering during the student mobilisations of 2010-2011, when then-President Aaron Porter denounced student demonstrators and offered no support to the movement against the fee hike. Porter was hounded off demonstrations — even symbolically “kettled” by leftwingers during a Labour Students Conference in 2011! — and pushed out of office.
The NUS leadership might like to think that they have changed tack under the subsequent leadership of Liam Burns, a Labour student union officer from Scotland and ostensibly more “capable” and “leftwing” than Porter. In reality NUS remains rudderless.
NUS’s major action since the last conference was half-organising a national demonstration around a meaningless slogan (“Educate Employ Empower”), at the end of which disappointed demonstrators hurled fruit at the National President. Beyond that, there has been a badly-attended “activist” training event, and a lobby of Parliament over further education funding which attracted little attention from students, the press or the government.
Since the government shelved its Higher Education Bill, the Tories’ planned process of radical marketising reform has slowed. There is no major wave of cuts underway in Higher Education, and none seems to be planned, given universities’ improved income from £9,000 fees.
But in the general climate of marketisation, austerity and ruling-class offensive, numerous small, local battles are breaking out.
Sussex University students are currently occupying against the contracting-out of 235 jobs. In Birmingham there have been fights against sackings — of University of Birmingham teacher José Nafafé and Halesowen College UCU Chair Dave Muritu. In London, UCL students occupied against the buy-out and privatisation of the Carpenters Estate and a student tenants’ union has been set up by the University of London Union. At Edinburgh University, the autonomy of the Students Association has come under attack from a non-elected General Manager.
This constant bubbling of local fights shows the direction that NUS must take. The union could weave these battles into a single national thread, link them and invigorate them with a programme for democracy, free education, and student-worker solidarity. It could mobilise students around broader issues such as the fight to save the NHS, and in solidarity with the trade union and labour movement. Instead these battles are left to local activists and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts coalition to support and publicise, while the current NUS leadership blunders on obliviously.
There is an urgent need for a coherent set of political responses to the struggles and attacks going on in the higher education sector, for the NUS to make the case for free, democratically-controlled education as a solution to them.
NUS needs to move from its self-conception as an inhabitant of the “Westminster policy village” (a village where NUS is roundly mocked by the real political operators) to a political fighting force.
There is a debate among student activists around alternatives to NUS’s sclerotic, bureaucratic structure, with many proposals being discussed. Workers’ Liberty Students are advocating developing the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts to include a federated structure of local anti-cuts groups; continuing the struggle in NUS, including by fighting for an expansion of NUS democracy; and also building a federation of student unions that want to fight, a federation that will remain within NUS but also take decisions, organise and mobilise independently of it.
At NUS conference, AWL members will be working with others in the NCAFC to put forward motions and stand candidates arguing for these ideas. If you’re going as a delegate to the conference, or want to come and help, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• For information about NCAFC candidates, model motions for the conference and other materials, see anticuts.com