On 20 January, a laughably unrepresentative “extraordinary conference” of the National Union of Students passed its Blairite leaders’ plans to gut the union’s democracy. Under the new constitution, NUS will be far less responsive to rank-and-file initiative and attempts at control than before.
At the same time, from the second week of January, students at universities across the UK organised occupations against Israel’s war in Gaza (as Solidarity goes to press, occupations at UEA, Edinburgh and Goldsmiths brought the total number of occupations to 29). These actions have involved many thousands of students and influenced tens of thousands more. While the politics dominating them has often been deeply confused or problematic, they represent an inspiring resurgence of student solidarity, organising and direct action. Yet the deeply bureaucratised and conservative NUS has shown little but hostility to the occupiers.
But this the NUS that is refusing to organise national action — or any action at all — against the threat of the cap on top-up fees being lifted.
However on 25 February, the NUS Women’s, Black Students’ and LGBT campaigns, twenty student unions and activists from across the country will come together for a national demonstration against fees and for free education — a demonstration that was initiated by the Education Not for Sale network. This is the first time that such mass national action, independent of NUS, has taken place for more than a decade, since the Campaign for Free Education demonstrations at the end of the 1990s.
All these developments pose the need for students to get organised on a national scale outside, or at least independently of, NUS. Students involved in the occupations have established national networks; meanwhile many left-led student unions are talking about disaffiliation from NUS. How should these forces relate to each other? How can a new national student organising centre be built?
Left activists in the student movement urgently need to start discussing these issues. And how does a wave of occupations against tuition fees sound? Education Not for Sale will be taking the lead.
• On 7 March, ENS and student activists are hosting a meeting to discuss the way forward. Click here for more.