By Daniel Randall, NATIONAL UNION OF STUDENTS (NUS) executive (personal capacity)
In a recent press release, NUS has “condemned” the decision by the lecturers’ union AUT to refuse to set exams (as part of their pay dispute). The student organisation has vowed to “up the pressure” to “demand” that AUT back down. Leading NUS officers such as National President Kat Fletcher have said that they believe the “immediate priority” is to demand that the AUT sets exams.
A letter signed by sabbatical officers from 20 of NUS’s member unions recently appeared in the Independent. Admirably, pro-strike unions responded with a letter of their own that had more signatories than the first, but nationally the NUS seems more willing to be led by the opinion of a layer of bureaucrats than by its rank-and-file.
Part of solidarity is standing up in support of someone else’s struggle even if it isn’t in your immediate interests to do so. The Heathrow baggage handlers who walked off the job in solidarity with Gate Gourmet sacked catering workers last August risked losing their jobs. But they took action because the principle and the struggle at stake were worth it.
The history of the labour movement is full of such examples of solidarity. It would not be unreasonable to hope that the National Union of Students (while not strictly a trade union, an organisation which — even under its current leadership — still sees itself as part of the broad trade union movement) might have learnt some of the lessons.
But no. Although NUS leaders expressed “personal” support for the lecturers, an official statement only appeared on the NUS website after the 7 March strike. While stating NUS’s support for the strike and assessment boycott, it was hardly a militant expression of solidarity. The lead headline was “End it today!”, and posters the NUS produced asked, “Sick of your work not being marked? Complain today!”
The position of support was buried under an enormous amount of pandering to the large body of right-wing student union sabbatical [full-time] officers who believe — and continue to believe — that while supporting a one-day strike might be okay, an on-going boycott of assessment that might jeopardise NUS members’ degrees is definitely out of the question.
Instead of taking the opportunity to win the argument for solidarity within our union and educate a generation of student officers in why it’s important to support workers in struggle, the NUS has continued to spin its position on the dispute to accommodate anti-solidarity sentiment.
Yes, NUS should be sensitive to the views of democratically elected student officers concerned for the academic welfare of their members. But instead of just pandering to their existing views, the union leadership should be taking the opportunity to give a political lead and have the argument.
The abject unwillingness of NUS’s leaders to do this is both a symptom and cause of the currently low level of political culture inside the union. At this year’s conference, several Executive members made it clear that they were opposed to pro-abortion rights text being discussed on national conference floor, claiming it was an “autonomy issue”. When pushed, many of them admitted that the real reason was fear of defeat. But the idea that not having that debate has weakened anti-choice forces in the union one iota is laughable. All they will be doing is gloating at how NUS’s spineless leaders don’t even dare to take them on.
If we are ever going to win the arguments on tough questions like abortion or why students should support lecturers even if that means they might not graduate on time, we need to have enough confidence in our ideas to tackle the issues head-on. Abrogating the arguments for fear of defeat will only diminish the political culture further.
The leadership’s refusal to properly fight for or even explicitly advocate the union’s free education policy allowed political consciousness around the issue to wither away completely. At this year’s conference, Blairites in the union successfully reintroduced policy in favour of targeted grants. But they were only able to do this because of a politically dormant union lulled asleep by a leadership determined to keep politics and campaigning off the agenda. All the evidence makes it very clear that running away from politics strengthens no-one but the reactionaries.
When it comes to issues like abortion and education funding, we needs an NUS that takes on the toughest arguments and fights for progressive politics. And when it comes to the AUT dispute, we need an NUS whose “immediate priorities” are to continue to support the workers and to “up the pressure” on their bosses. If we genuinely support our lecturers’ struggle, nothing short of that kind of wholehearted and unconditional support is good enough.