By Daniel Randall, national union of students executive
MY Labour Students colleagues on the NUS National Executive Committee (along with several of the “Independents”) spent much of their time during the local election campaigns in Tower Hamlets, trying to stop Respect from getting elected. Fair enough - Blairite activists will campaign for Blairite candidates, although why they thought fighting Respect in Tower Hamlets was a more important use of their time than fighting the BNP in Barking and Dagenham is somewhat beyond me.
I spent a lot of my time in Hackney, campaigning for Janine Booth – former NUS Womens Officer, an activist in the rail union RMT and a respected community campaigner — and Charlie McDonald — an activist in the civil service union PCS who won his job back after management victimisation in 2005. They were standing as Socialist Unity candidates in Hackney Central ward.
The campaign was good; we ended up with around 11% of the vote (beating the Tories) and, more importantly, involved many working-class people in socialist campaigning - some for the first time. I also met a lot of young people during the course of the campaign, including many Further Education students, and I was constantly reminded of how far NUS has to go before it is a union that genuinely engages anything like the mass of its membership.
The Further Education students I met in Hackney were typical of the working-class majority of FE students across the UK - and that means they face course cuts and pitiful funding at college and shit wages and worse conditions in the jobs they have to work in order to gain some financial independence. A few of them know NUS as a discount card, some dont even know that, and none of them think of NUS as a democratic union in which they can engage and get active.
NUSs leadership has crowed triumphantly about “walking the walk” on FE this year (as opposed to other political factions who just “talk the talk”). Really? The primary focus of NUSs FE campaigning has been around the Foster review. If youre not aware, this is a bureaucratic government review into Further Education which, in amongst a lot of garbage about how businesses and employers need a greater role in colleges, talks obliquely about “embedding the learner voice at the heart of the sector.” This, frankly, could mean anything to anyone, and to a lot of people it means precisely nothing.
I was too busy talking to the young people I met in Hackney about their jobs and about why the youth club on their estate got closed down to ask them what they thought of the Foster review, but I cant imagine any of them would have been particularly animated about it. I also cant imagine any of them would have been particularly impressed if Id told them that the union thats supposed to represent them at college had based almost all of its campaigning around that issue.
NUS must become a union that means as much to the 16 or 17 year old FE student working at McDonalds as it does to sabbatical officers in the biggest university student unions. If it doesnt, then we will simply be failing the majority of our membership. And a union that fails the majority of its membership is no sort of union worth the name.
It may be some time before we see FE students from Hackneys council estates on NUSs executive or even active within its structures. But if NUS starts to focus seriously on the bread-and-butter class issues that matter to FE students then at least well be “walking the walk” in the right direction.