On 21 November University College London Students for Free Education will host a National Convention Against Tuition Fees for anyone who thinks higher education should be free for all. Michael Chessum, one of the organisers, spoke to Solidarity.
The “mainstream” seems to have forgotten free education. NUS and the LibDems have abandoned it (or their leaderships have, anyway), so it's absolutely vital that we get it back on the agenda.
Part of that is about struggling against marketisation, fees and cuts at a local level, But it is also about having a national platform that can attract meaningful attention and co-ordinate, or at least galvanise, that movement on a national level. The Convention is aimed at providing a space for all of that. In order to do so it's got to be big and have backing from individual student unions from across the country. It will most certainly include plenaries on “the case for free education” and means of funding it, workshops discussing the way forward, entertainment and maybe a debate.
We, the organisers, are a broad coalition of societies and activists of various stripes — we’ve got no “hidden agenda” and we’re of no “faction”.
We need sympathetic student unions, independent campaigns, established groups and — most importantly — individuals to be there. The UCL Campaign's biggest success last year was drawing on support from people who had never engaged in this kind of politics before; they’re the key to our movement's strength! We’re willing to work with anyone who shares the aims of the campaign, and, ultimately, those aims are inherently radical and will become more so as the recession hits.
It is for the conference to decide what comes out of it! But I’d certainly hope that we’d build for something bigger — perhaps a national demo. And we're going ahead with some kind of “declaration”.
I'm sure the issue about what to do about NUS is something that will come up at the conference (we're planning to hold a workshop focusing on it). Although the Governance Review changed the situation inside NUS, the biggest disincentive to leaving NUS remains the liberation campaigns — and if people decided to leave they would have to be in meaningful number and strength. We shouldn't under-estimate the fact that some unions — UCLU included — might not be able to follow.
I’m not sure what an alternative federation of student unions would mean if it were inside the NUS.