By Daniel Randall (National union of Students National executive, personal capacity)
2006 is a big year for education. It sees the introduction of top-up fees in Higher Education, meaning that universities can charge students up to £3,000 for the privilege of studying. Statistics have consistently shown that the introduction of top-up fees is having, and will continue to have, a devastating effect on university applications, undermining even the government’s own opportunist nods towards “access” to Higher Education.
It is also the year that will see the development of the Blairite government’s project for comprehensive education — a project that bases itself on the Thatcherite plans for “Grant Maintained Schools” and extends them beyond even her plans, encouraging every state comprehensive to become an “independent” school run by a “trust” controlled by businesses, charities, religious groups and indeed anyone who can stump up a little money.
2006 is the year in which the Blair government — as part of its vicious and unrelenting war on social provision — will try to smash the idea of free, democratically-controlled education for all for good. So, naturally, you'd assume that the major representative and campaigning body of students in this country would be up in arms.
And you’d be right. The campaign from the National Union of Students in response to all of this has been inspiring. NUS organised a first-term national demonstration in London under radical slogans such as “tax the rich to fund free education”. We let the government know that although we may have lost — for now — the battles on tuition and top-up fees, we will not simply roll over and die but continue to fight for immediate gains now (such as the restoration of grants and an increased EMA for FE students) as well as continuing to fight for the complete abolition of all fees.
On campuses, the NUS has helped local student unions build dynamic campaigns that tie in campus-specific issues such as the privatisation of halls of residence or services like catering and security to the national picture, giving clear guidance on how to build local demonstrations that mobilise the local labour movement and community groups.
NUS’s national representatives have hardly been off the television and radio, using the momentum of the campaign (which, by the way, has mobilised thousands of students and brought thousands more into political activity for the first time), making explicit NUS’s opposition to all forms of charging for education and advocating a massive increase in taxation on the rich and business to pay not only for free education but for a proper welfare state, too.
We’ve built campaigning unity with the trade unions, taking up the multitude of workplace issues that are linked to the question of free education. As a result, thousands of young workers and working students (frequently amongst the most exploited in the workforce) have been organised into the labour movement.
The campaign’s also had an internationalist perspective, linking our struggles here to the struggles of Palestinian, Colombian, French, German and other students for free, accessible education and social justice. NUS has used this angle to integrate the many thousands of students active in campaigns such as Colombia Solidarity and People & Planet into the organised structures of the student movement and bring them into free education campaigning for the first time.
The dynamism and energy of the campaign has even caused some shifts in the labour movement itself, with many trade union militants and Labour Party leftists sitting up and taking serious notice. There’s even talk of affiliated trade unions and radical MPs forcing a split in the Labour Party on the question of education and public services, potentially resulting in the creation of a new workers’ party.
That’s what I saw in my dream anyway. But then I had a nightmare. I heard people saying NUS would not organise a real campaign at all. They thought the union would blunder into calling a demonstration, then cancel it. They thought NUS would organise no action whatsoever until it stumbled into announcing a ‘week of action’ in early March in which nothing other than a lobby of parliament would take place.
They speculated that, far from even publicly advocating NUS’s own policy, its leaders would promote bland phrases about the needs to “place the student movement at the heart of the debate on education.”
These cynics even suggested that the only national leadership and co-ordination NUS would give to local unions would be to politely encourage them to organise “debates” on their campus.
The only unity that NUS would build with the labour movement would be an insipid bureaucratic front called “Coalition 2010”, a vehicle for abrogating the struggle for free education until several years from now when the £3,000 top-up fees cap comes up for review.
Now, which dream was the future? And which the current reality?