The year leading up to the 2021 National Union of Students conference (online, 6-9 April) has seen a revitalising of the student movement, and has thus raised interest in orienting NUS to be a visible campaigning force.
Under the left-wing presidency of Larissa Kennedy, NUS has supported the movement against fees and rent through the Students Deserve Better campaign, even if the work has been primarily “lobbying” higher powers, and the claimed victory of £50 million in government support for students falls way short of the £700 million that is demanded.
Conference was opened with positive ambition by Kennedy, calling for a mass grassroots movement to demarketise and decolonise Higher Education. She emphasised solidarity and collectivism across the movement, and reminded us of Fred Hampton’s message: “Any theory you get, practise it”. So far, independent student campaigns, not NUS, have been doing that, and winning for students.
The proposals to conference covered fees, student housing, mental health, sexual violence, Erasmus and cost of living. Conference arrangements have been changed, supposedly to ensure “all voices are heard”. Now “collaborative group discussions” take place for each policy area. There were two rounds of those, with delegates able to choose one of three areas for each round. Fees and accommodation were the most popular. Proposals were presented and questions could be asked, before rounds of breakout rooms and anonymised, online, written feedback, from which amendments were formulated.
Breakout rooms provide a good opportunity for delegates to have longer discussions in an otherwise awkward Zoom context. However, the arrangement prevented any political exchange in view of the conference. There was an illusion of engagement, but without any impact on the conference as a whole. Amendments were formalised at the discretion of each workshop’s facilitator, the only person who understood the procedures to do so.
Increasing engagement and accessibility is good. But such a casualisation of conference procedures seriously undermines the necessity of clear, robust structures to submit amendments and motions.
Ultimately, all motions and amendments were voted for simultaneously. In an anticlimactic victory for consensus building, the online vote which took place after the close of conference returned all proposals and amendments successful. Yes to everything. The amended motion on fees and finance demanded a full fee rebate and the scrapping of tuition fees as a “priority”. On accommodation, Conference voted that “students shouldn’t have to participate in a rent strike to achieve change”, but did include a tentative push for collective bargaining over rent.
A high proportion of international students forced Conference to pay close attention to issues created by borders in education, but genuine political disagreements were brushed over by vague language across all proposals and amendments.
The difficulties of debating specific, nuanced policy at Conference is largely due to the changes to NUS democracy in 2019 which depoliticised decision making and invested powers in NUS officers who are not bound by conference decisions. The leadership’s radical rhetoric needs to be translated into actually mobilising and supporting organising at universities across the country, with clear politics and directives.