By Sofie Buckland
ON 29 October, the National Union of Students held a national demonstration in London, under the branding “Admission:Impossible”. The demo called for “fair access” and for the government not to raise tuition fees in 2010.
Before I start with the usual pessimism and relentless negativity, I’d like to emphasise that I’m very very pleased the NUS National Demonstration took place this year. Education Not for Sale have long agitated for getting students out on the streets to demand free education; it’s good that the demo was organised, and we hope the campaign doesn’t stop here.
However, there are criticisms that have to be made. The demonstration was small, 10,000 at the best estimate, around 3,500 at the worst. Three years of inaction, inexplicably cancelling last year’s demo in favour of an apolitical lobby of parliament and moving the previous one to Cardiff, has led to this. When it comes to political campaigning, inaction breeds inaction, and the NUS leaders are reaping what they have sown in terms of refusing to organise a real fight for free education.
Many students and even sabbatical officers on the demonstration will never have been on an NUS action before; for many, their only previous encounter with NUS will have been student discounts in high street chains. While it’s wholly positive that these students will now associate NUS with at least some kind of politics, the demo left a lot to be desired in terms of radicalism. With the slogan “keep the cap” prominently displayed, it’s probably the only action I’ve ever been on that’s called for the preservation of the status quo.
The NEC were also strangely removed from the politics of the demonstration. I arrived at ULU at 10am to be told that I was expected to steward the march, removing myself from the political role I’ve been elected to and basically acting as a functionary of the union. I refused, on the grounds that it created an artificial division between the membership and the NEC, and that our role was to get involved with the demo, talk to students, lead the chanting and generally provide some semblance of hands-on political leadership, not just behind-the-scenes logistics and high-profile speeches from the platform. When students decided to sit down in Parliament square, in solidarity with the peace camp protestors being arrested and moved-on throughout the day, NEC members acting as stewards joined the police in encircling us, keeping other protestors out. It is not our role, as elected representatives of students, to join the police in preventing their legitimate protest.
No doubt the right-wing will use the small numbers and fact the demo barely registered in the mainstream media as a justification not to back further action. They're right when they say one demonstration a year is not going to win free education That's why Education Not for Sale have been calling for local, campus-based protests both before and after the national demo; where possible, students should occupy university buildings, maximising the impact a small number of protestors can have.
Cambridge Education Not for Sale carried out a successful teach-in on 24 October, occupying a set of lecture halls all night in protest at their Vice Chancellor's lobbying for higher fees. Calling for taxation of the rich and business to fund education, and a living grant for all, 40 students spent 12 hours watching political films, discussing further action and listening to lectures. The occupation finished with students posting their demands on the door of the university administration building. The Vice Chancellor, Alison Richard, was forced to clarify her position the following day, claiming she is waiting for the government's review on university access before supporting higher top-up fees.
Even a small amount of actions like this one could spark wider action, get national attention and put the government on the back foot, as well as showing the right-wing in our movement demos are small because of repeated failures of political leadership, not because students don't care.