The Socialist 19 September 2012
We can beat Con-Dems' austerity
Interview with NUS vice-president for union development
Building the fight against fees, cuts and privatisation
'Clearly the NUS has a job to do'
In 2010, tens of thousands of students took to the streets against the tripling of tuition fees in England. 2012's intake will be the first lot to face these fees of up to £9,000 a year, as the Con-Dems stop central funding of higher education.
A student studying for three years, with fee and living cost loans, could owe over £50,000 at the end of their degree if they study in London, or a mere £43,500 for studying outside London. No wonder student numbers have dropped by 57,000!
This year's NUS conference called for students to march in London on Wednesday 21 November. This is an improvement on 2011, when the New Labour-led NUS leadership refused to call a demo, but should be just the start of mobilising the anger of students against the divisive 'free-market' in higher education.
At the 2012 National Union of Students (NUS) conference, Socialist Students welcomed the election of Vicki Baars as vice-president for union development as a step forward for the left.
Socialist Students spoke to Vicki:
What do you think the Con-Dems' 'vision' for universities would look like?
David Willetts' current strategy seems to be to drastically cut public funding, creating a huge range of problems, after which he turns around and says: 'I know what will solve this - privatisation'!
Do you think the NUS strategy of lobbying government ministers has been successful?
I've always been clear that lobbying ministers can never be our only strategy. I think that research can have an impact, but over time NUS has become more and more comfortable with just doing this side of things and not protesting.
I'm pleased that in the last couple of years that has started to change.
For many in NUS, I think having a Tory government has made them more comfortable with protests. They believe they're now less likely to gain the ear of ministers than they were under Labour. But I would hope that, even with a change of government, this new temperament would continue. Labour leaders Blair and Brown both headed regimes happy to do things contrary to the interests of students. Labour's introduction of top-up fees is the biggest example. In my view NUS's opposition wasn't strong enough. I think one reason for this is that many in the leadership of NUS are uncomfortable to protest while Labour is in power.
I hope that, following the demonstration on 21 November, NUS will keep up the direct action and build on the momentum that a big national demo helps to create.
What was your role in the 2010 student movement?
In 2010 I had just left being a sabbatical at Leeds Met and this was my first year at NUS as an LGBT officer. My colleague Alan and I were heavily involved in organising the student protests, after being involved in organising Pride demonstrations.
We went along to all the protests and argued on the NEC that NUS should not condemn students who took part in the Milbank occupation, as Aaron Porter (then NUS president) had done. We said we needed to stand with our students rather than victimise them.
What do you feel were the successes of the movement?
While we failed to prevent the rise of fees and cutting of EMA in England, I think it would be wrong to say that 2010's movement won nothing. Wins in Scotland have so far saved a lot of student support funding and prevented the government introducing fees. Clearly Scotland's devolved government felt the hot breath of the student movement on their backs.
Since becoming vice-president for union development what have been your top priorities?
My main role is to help maintain and develop our student unions. I'm involved in helping to train activists to lead the fight on their campuses.
One of my key priorities at the moment is campaigning on unemployment. For me this is about saying to the government: we're doing as much as we can to help make graduates employable - but what are you doing to create jobs?
What is your feeling on the 21 November demonstration's slogan 'employ, educate, empower'?
It's not ideal. I would have preferred slogans more like 'fight unemployment' or 'no to cuts'. The intention of the slogan is to say we want investment in education, the government to create jobs and for students to feel empowered by using their collective strength. So I think when you pick apart the slogan it's not quite as bad.
Whether NUS should call for free education still divides opinion within the union. What do you think about this?
I believe in fully funded education, completely free at the point of use. I think that it should be paid for by the highest earners and the rich through taxation, regardless of whether they are graduates. I was in favour of raising the slogan 'tax the rich' on the demonstration. But I know my fellow vice-presidents don't agree.
How do you view the student movement in the context of the wider struggle against austerity?
I'm very supportive of UCU and Unison in their struggle against cuts and job losses. I think sometimes that there are student union officers who have the 'wool pulled over their eyes' about their university management's intentions. Some vice-chancellors are determined to privatise almost all support services. Clearly NUS has a job to do in educating and politicising this layer of student union officers, especially at such a crucial time for education.
Socialist Students says:
Stop press: Irish students victimised
A county council is refusing to grant aid third level students whose parents have not paid the Household Tax.
Socialist Party TD (MP) Joe Higgins has said: "Clare County Council are an example of victimisation of young people for the principled stand their parents have taken against this unjust and unpopular charge that is being boycotted still by some 50% of liable households... Hence we see more bullying tactics to squeeze money out of people. It will not work!"
In this issue
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party women
Socialist Party review