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NUS conference report: Struggle still essential
Newly elected National Union of Students (NUS) president Wes Streeting, claims students will lose influence on the government if they protest and demand free education. Apparently students only have to ask for the £3,000 cap on fees to be maintained and the government will listen.
Matt Dobson, Socialist Students national organiser
Disgracefully Labour Students and the rest of the right wing leadership opposed a call for a national demonstration to put pressure on the government and spoke against organising a mass campaign against fees and for free education in the run up to the review of the cap on top-up fees in 2009.
But Wes's tactic is not having much 'influence' as vice chancellors and universities are already budgeting for the increased income from higher fees.
This ludicrous argument was answered during the conference debate by Mia Hollsing from Cardiff Socialist Students. Mia argued that the most effective way of defeating fees and forcing the government to properly fund education is by "mobilising students into action and linking up with workers who are fighting attacks on their pay and conditions in a mass campaign".
Arran Cottam, from University of the West of England Socialist Students, received enthusiastic applause when he proposed NUS support for the teachers' industrial action on 24 April. He called on students to support picket lines and demonstrations but the NUS bureaucracy would not allow Socialist Students to propose an emergency motion.
But students also won a victory at the NUS conference. A proposed new constitution, which would have removed any potential for the NUS to represent and fight for ordinary students, was defeated.
The New Labour-backed NUS leadership attempted to force through undemocratic structural changes such as allowing student unions to opt out of mandatory cross-campus elections for delegates to NUS conference and replacing the current national executive (NEC) with a senate and board that would have allowed unelected 'experts' to veto any campaigns or actions proposed by elected student representatives.
The constitution was rejected on the basis of a higher turnout of students to NUS conference than in previous years. Despite attempts to pressurise delegates to vote in favour, Labour Students and others on the right narrowly failed to get the two-thirds majority they constitutionally needed to push through the attacks.
Socialist Students members contributed to the defeat of the right wing by organising opposition to the review in many student unions and mobilising ordinary students (ie those who are not seeking to carve out a career in politics seeing NUS as the first step!) to the conference.
The NUS leadership are already contemplating organising undemocratic extraordinary conferences (possibly in the summer when students are not on campus!) to push through their unwanted constitution.
Socialist Students explained that a democratic and campaigning NUS can only be defended by involving the mass of students in campaigning against fees, cuts, privatisation and other New Labour attacks.
There was a significant minority of activists at the conference, particularly from Further Education colleges who responded positively towards Socialist Students with many delegates buying copies of The Socialist and signing up to find out more.
However, because of the grip of the New Labour right-wing clique that runs NUS conference, the majority of ordinary students on campuses across the country are not involved in the structures and events of the NUS. This means that the majority of delegates to conference are not fighters or campaigners, but people looking to build political careers.
Arran Cottam, Socialist Students candidate for the NEC, put forward a socialist fighting strategy for building links with workers and fighting back against New Labour during the hustings but missed out on a position on the NEC.
The right wing have a majority on the NEC (as well as New Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were elected) and will continue to use the bureaucratic structures against campaigns.
The left are in a minority on the NEC with Student Respect having two representatives on the part time 'block of 12'. The most effective use of their positions will be to go out to ordinary students and other activists and campaigners to democratically build effective mass action against fees.
Socialist Students and the Campaign to Defeat Fees has shown what is possible by organising a wide range of action against university fees, including days of action with over 50 coordinated protests around the UK.
This gives a glimpse of the anger that exists on campuses and in the colleges, and shows the potential for campaigning against fees and privatisation. It also shows the potential support for a genuine left campaigning alternative to the current NUS leadership.
In The Socialist 9 April 2008:
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party workplace news
Post Office closures
International socialist news and analysis