Socialist Students statement on the passing of the NUS Governance Review. I've been writing an essay for the last week so it'll be business as usual once that's finished.
Build a mass movement for free education
The NUS extraordinary conference on January 20 in Wolverhampton saw the culmination of a campaign by the NUS (National Union of Students) right wing leadership, many of whom are Labour party members, to remove democratic structures in the national student body. This is taking place at a time when students are being threatened with a big increase in tuition fees, but the priority of the NUS leadership is to destroy their own union's democracy, rather than to fight in students' interests.
In order to force through these changes, the student union bureaucracy was mobilised to ensure debate was kept to an absolute minimum. Officers against the removal of democracy were locked out of emails, whilst the NUS leadership 'accidentally' sent emails to all the delegates. Without going through annual conference, these changes have been put through by two extraordinary conferences, one called at such short notice that many delegates were not elected, the most recent in the university and college exam period.
The new NUS constitution will mean that it is virtually impossible for students to propose motions to conference that will then get discussed on conference floor, that the final say on all national campaigns is in the hands of self-selecting bureaucrats, and the obligation to elect delegates to conferences is open to removal for some students unions. NUS is now far more akin to a charity that lobbies for students interests than a trade union, a body that has the potential to carry out mass action through the involvement of its members.
As Socialist Students have pointed out many times, this process has happened above the heads of the vast majority of students. The NUS leadership has rendered itself increasingly irrelevant to students' lives by refusing to take any large-scale action for over two years, and downplaying action that has taken place in order to misrepresent the real feelings of students over issues like university fees and student debt.
But the British government is in the midst of an economic crisis, and is imposing draconian attacks on people claiming benefits; it will also seek to make big attacks on students and young people in the future in order to cover the costs of bailing out the rich bankers and the capitalist system. Already graduates are being asked to work below the minimum wage for wealthy multinationals, as part of the governments National Internship Scheme (see here). A report for the government, quietly published over the Christmas holiday period, recommends big increases in the amount universities can charge students. These attacks will provoke huge opposition and mass movements from young people and students. The NUS will not be in a position to effectively lead these struggles, with new generations of activists looking mostly elsewhere. It will be out of these struggles, and mass action, that a genuine new student movement will be built.
Socialist Students has initiated the Campaign to Defeat Fees, which has won broad support from those beyond Socialist Students ranks. It has led the way in terms of national action against fees, organising days of action over the course of the last two academic years which have involved hundreds of students in over 50 universities and colleges around the country. It has also won support from students in Bangor University in a referendum, against the arguments of the leadership of NUS. In addition to campaigning on fees and debt, Socialist Students have also organised many protests over the recent destruction in Gaza in places like Keele and Bangor, campaigned against privatisation in Sussex, Exeter and Northumbria, and much more. Socialist Students, and the Campaign to Defeat Fees, have an important role to play in building campaigns against raising the cap on university fees and in building a national fightback against attacks.
Unfortunately, there is currently no mass force amongst students that is capable of giving effective leadership to the student struggle and of starting a discussion about building a new national body with serious weight behind it. Socialist Students argues for a broad left to bring together all genuine activists to be built in the coming period.
In the absence of such a broad left the NUS will remain, in the eyes of the government, the media etc, the established voice of students for now. Many students unions view their relationship with the national body as a means of getting discounted beer and other goods, through NUSSL, rather than primarily as a political one. Large numbers of College and FE students unions, largely without the same resources for full time staff as university HE students unions, will not have been aware of the undemocratic changes to NUS. Changes in voting for NUS conference delegates will happen on a student's union-by-students union basis, and will be a gradual process. Without mass developments outside NUS, it is possible that a layer of activists could still even be attracted to the NUS, only to be sorely disappointed once reaching national events. Although extremely unlikely, it is also not impossible that the NUS could still play a role in campaigning for student rights, even organising demonstrations if it feels under pressure and is worried about losing its dominant position as 'the' voice for students. Therefore it is unlikely that these fundamental changes to the NUS will be fully felt immediately. Only as a result of mass action led by activists outside the NUS will the domination of NUS be undermined.
This will not necessarily be a lengthy process however. A march has been called through London on February 25, actively involving a modest number of students unions and campaigning student groups, including Socialist Students. This has been organised outside of the NUS structures, in opposition to the NUS leadership's inactive strategy, although supported by NUS-affiliated students unions. Socialist Students put a motion to the body that is organising this action, calling for it to take on more flesh and become the embryo of a new national campaigning centre. This is opposed by Socialist Workers Student Societies (SWSS) and the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) because of fears they will not be able to dominate it. The AWL state, in a document they distributed at a Socialist Students national council,
"We should use Sussex [Students Union] as a starting base of the new centre [to replace NUS] – Sussex could provide a fraction of its current NUS affiliation fee...
"The Open Planning Meetings for the demonstration should continue after the demonstration... but it is unlikely that they will 'morph' into a new organising centre. They are too loose to form a nucleus or a base, and an attempt to 'firm them up' would be fraught with difficulty. Separate meetings and conferences should be held to create the new body – and when Sussex constitutes it, the new organising centre should be presented to the Open Planning Meetings as a fait accompli"
Amongst student activists, Sussex has an important reputation as a campaigning students union. Activists within the union, who have been involved in organising the march on February 25, will have an important part to play in building a new body. But we do not agree that one union can substitute itself for the whole student body, much less establish a new centre and present itself as a fait accompli to other groups of students entering activity. Because of the methods of the SWP and the AWL, the march on February 25 has been organised in a nebulous manner, one that is open to undemocratic manoeuvres and does not carry as much weight as it could do. A march, even a smaller one, will be a positive step forwards, and a national body that has led this and organised this could be in a significant position. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the open planning meetings will be transformed in order to take full advantage of this. Any steps towards forming new national bodies need to be based on mass action, on a genuinely democratic approach involving new layers of activists as well as bringing together student activist groups and students unions. That may come through local students unions, but many of these bodies have also attacked internal democracy.
New bodies may also develop around and without these local structures as well.
If the loose grouping that has called the February 25 march does not take on flesh, it will be a missed opportunity. Socialist Students will strive to ensure that that does not happen, but it is clear that the end of NUS has opened up a period where there may well be a series of false starts and missed opportunities. We will attempt to ensure that we discuss the situation regularly within our ranks, whilst prioritising campaigning against attacks on students and workers conditions and rights.
We will continue to play a role in the NUS structures, and not abandon any activists that are attracted to it by false hopes, or any possibility of gaining a wider audience of students for our ideas of struggle and socialism. Whilst there is no new national body, we do not call for students unions to disaffiliate from the NUS. But as part of our campaigning, we will raise the idea of building genuinely representative bodies for students, that fight against attacks and for improvements, and endeavour to build the fight back alongside students with the strategy of building mass movements.
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