This year’s National Union of Students conference (13-15 April) represented a new low in terms of political and organisational culture for the student movement. Massive cuts to delegation sizes meant that the conference was smaller than ever, and structural changes which have made NUS even less accessible than before guaranteed an absolute minimum of political controversy in the policy debates.
Almost every mildly left-wing motion was heavily defeated and NUS’s policies in favour of fees and cuts were maintained. A small victory was won when a motion in support of future strike action by the lecturers’ union UCU was passed, but given the complete lack of any channels of accountability by which activists could control the NUS leadership, they will be able to ignore the policy and condemn the next big UCU strike.
The organised left was in a very weak position, representing perhaps 10% of conference delegates. As we go to press, conference is due to debate a motion in favour of new structural changes which will see NUS merge with NUSSL (its own commercial arm) and AMSU (the Association for Managers in Students Unions, a bosses’ club for managerial staff in student unions) to create a large commercial charity with a tiny, feeble campaigning arm. This would represent a potentially irreversible shift in the character of NUS away from a union model of organisation.
The pathetic irony of the whole affair is that the conference takes place as genuine grassroots student and worker resistance to cuts grows — battles that were almost entirely unrepresented at a conference entirely abstracted and disconnected from the day-to-day struggles NUS members face.
The real tasks for working-class activists in the student movement will not take place within NUS’s increasingly atrophied and inaccessible structures, but on campuses and communities across the country.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is involved in building networks like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts to meet those tasks.