By daniel randall, National union of Students executive
In late August, the National Union of Students national executive committee voted to commit the union to organising a national demonstration about education funding at some point during the next academic year.
However, at a meeting to launch the union’s campaigns for the year (at which it simultaneously launched an anti-fees campaign for free education and feted Blair’s Higher Education Minister), a number of student union sabbatical officers complained loudly about the forthcoming march. Under their pressure, National President Kat Fletcher agreed to remit the question to an emergency NEC, which voted overwhelmingly to overturn the original decision.
For the first time in several years, the NUS will not be organising a national demonstration for free education. Even Labour Students members of the NEC – whose originally backed the idea — backed down. They presented an insipid plan of action for the NUS’s Education Campaign that contained a commitment to a 2006 national demo but also proposed a “focus on the Lib Dems and Tories” to prevent them changing their anti-top up fees policy.
All the pathetic arguments were wheeled out. Among the most disingenuous was the idea that a complete reversal by the Executive on this decision was in fact an example of the leadership “listening to the membership.” In other words, because a small clutch of mainly right-wing sabbaticals complained about the demo, the demo should not take place.
But people who espouse these arguments don’t have much of a conception of what representation is, who NUS’s members are and even what a union is for.
The central crisis facing the NUS, the one from which all others (including the a critical financial situation) flow, is the crisis of disengagement. A disengagement between the NUS structures and campaigns and the “rank-and-file” ordinary students on university and college campuses.
NUS members are people immediately threatened with course cuts and campus closures. People who have no time for social activities because time not studying must be spent working to survive. People to whom the only jobs available are casual jobs in retail, fast food or bars that pay low wages and offer poor hours.
Most of these people have absolutely no engagement with the official student movement and its structures, and frankly — when NUS is incapable of even organising a demonstration as part of a fightback on the day-to-day struggles they face — who can blame them?
There is a life-and-death imperative for the NUS to reconnect its campaigns to its rank-and-file. A national demonstration, organised and funded in co-operation with allies in the labour movement also fighting privatisation in education, could have been an element in this process. It is unsurprising that a leadership happy to hob-nob with top Blairites and endorse candidates in internal Tory Party elections has moved so quickly and so efficiently to stop this from happening.
A series of small-scale national “actions” are planned, but this leadership cannot be relied upon to organise any sort of militant campaign. That task falls to activists committed to the project of building rank-and-file networks in the student movement.
At the heart of this issue is a difference in conception of what the NUS is for and what it is all about. Those in the leadership who have successfully aborted the plans for a national demonstration have a range of views: some see it primarily as a service provider and others see it, at best, as a lobbying or pressure group.
We — grassroots student activists and campaigners — have a different view. For us, the NUS is a democratic collective that is controlled by its members, for its members. It is, in short, a union. Our fight now is to make it act like one.