“Now is the time for student unions to be what the government is afraid of”

Submitted by Matthew on 20 April, 2016 - 2:00

Sahaya James, a student at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, part-time member of the National Union of Students national executive, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts candidate for NUS Vice President Union Development, spoke to Solidarity.

How do you think NUS has done over the last year, since more left-wing NUS officers were elected?

The apparatus of NUS is still tightly controlled by the right, and they have put obstacles in the way of more left-wing officers. NEC right wingers have also continued to act as if they’re a majority, ignoring democratic decisions. At the same time some of the left wingers elected don’t have a grassroots activist background. There is a greater willingness to support left-wing policy, but not necessarily great drive on implementing campaigns, particularly in terms of action against the government’s HE reforms and Green Paper. Of course there’s been good work done by leftwing individual officers; however, I don’t think electing more lefties alone was going to transform NUS into a fighting union, particularly not in less than a year.

What does, and what should, the NUS VP Union Development do? What are your most important issues and policies in this election?

Many people have no idea what the VP UD does, and people engaged with NUS, like sabbatical officers, often have quite a dull, bureaucratic conception of it, simply designing training events and so on. Well, training events are themselves political. The training sabbs and others receive has a big impact on what’s on the agenda for student unions in the year ahead. If they get right-wing, supposedly “apolitical” training, that reinforces the trends you get with officers elected on the basis of popularity contests and not politics. Training should equip student unions to resist the onslaught we are facing in education, and to take on running campaigns against students being deported. We also need to put student-worker solidarity at the heart of what unions do. We should be pushing for democratic unions that maintain independence from management and are not dominated by unaccountable trustee boards. At the moment NUS is very much oriented around relatively well funded HE unions. Most of our members are in FE colleges where unions often don’t exist and even where they do on paper, they don’t in reality. Even in terms of timing, NUS training is mainly in the summer, which shuts out many new FE officers who are usually elected in the autumn term. Then there’s democracy in NUS. We’re facing another “Governance Review”, which will be a tool in the hands of the right, so I’m standing to defend and crucially extend NUS democracy.

How would you like to see student unions change?

Especially in light of the Trade Union Bill and the restriction on student unions proposed in the Green Paper, now is the time to emphasise what SUs are, why they can be powerful and why the government sees them as a threat — because they offer the possibility of real collective organising which can make the power of our millions of students something real. In practice SUs are often just service providers, and NUS’s campaign to defend SUs — “Love SUs” — stresses that role, which is okay up to a point, but it misses why we’re under attack. The government says that these services can be more effectively “delivered” by private providers — so we can only defeat these attacks by proudly making student unions exactly what the government is afraid of and defending that explicitly.

There has been a lot of argument about freedom of speech and organisation on campus this year. What’s your view on that?

Some of the response to problems about this, for instance, the demonstration that took place outside NUS [organised mainly by some London university secular and humanist societies] or Peter Tatchell’s claims that he was no platformed, are over-reactions. But it’s true that some of the more extreme versions of no platforming culture which have been adopted are concerning. In general we should approach harmful views and ideas we disagree with through argument and debate. “No platform policy” should apply only to fascists. In terms of how it plays out on campuses, obviously the NUS VP UD can’t dictate what happens, but I think we can certainly suggest different tactics and a focus on arguing and debating with people, and encourage discussion about the problems that have developed around these issues.

Would you agree that student struggles have been relatively low-key this year? Why do you think that is? What have the most important struggles been?

It’s definitely fair to say we haven’t seen huge levels of militancy over the abolition of grants, or the Green Paper, or FE reforms. However there have been some very important actions by students, but they’ve not mainly been education focused. I’m thinking about opposing the Prevent agenda, and also on student housing, notably the UCL rent strike. There’s also the fight over the scrapping of NHS bursaries, and in solidarity with the junior doctors, and also supporting workers on campus.

There’s also been important fights around deportations. But for sure compared to last academic year, when we had the wave of occupations around education issues, it’s been low key. I wonder if there’s an element of people feel a bit disoriented and not knowing where to start, after the general election and the sheer number of attacks.

You mentioned Prevent. What do you think about NUS working with Cage?

Speaking for myself I’m not in favour of working with Cage, but we need to recognise that the NUS Black Student campaign and VP Welfare [Shelly Asquith]’s work around Prevent has been one of the most important things done this year. The arguments it’s put out there have had a big impact, in the labour movement too — NUT conference voted unanimously not to comply. I’ve also been shocked to see Megan Dunn and other officers getting funding withdrawn from the Student not Suspects tour, violating the autonomy of the liberation campaigns. I don’t think her objections to Cage are principled ones, but are about looking respectable.

What do you think about NUS’s relationship to the Corbyn phenomenon and the Labour Party?

NUS should be doing more to work with the Corbyn-led Labour Party in opposing the Tories. However the NUS right is obviously part of the Labour right, and not everyone on the left is in Labour or at least engaged with Labour politics. The way to pursue it is surely for the student movement to consider what it can do to shape and legitimise proposals for Labour and a Corbyn government, showing that our demands are what people are demanding and organising for on the ground, through grassroots struggles. That implies being independent and critical of Corbyn too.

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