Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/667/11890
NUS conference fails to act
Build movement against cuts and fees
Claire Laker-Mansfield, National organiser Socialist Students
With education under unprecedented attack and youth unemployment pushing one million, this year's National Union of Students (NUS) conference should have been a council of war, preparing the next steps for the education movement.
In reality, it was anything but. The conference mainly acted to confirm the complete irrelevance that the leadership of NUS has taken on.
Socialist Students members including Ian Pattison, our candidate for the National Executive Committee, challenged the leadership on the role it has played.
In recent months NUS leaders have condemned student protesters, failed to organise, or even lend support to, a demonstration on the day that parliament voted on tripling fees and been exposed for 'advising' the government on what cuts to make!
But students showed that they do not need the permission of their official leadership to struggle. Hundreds of thousands of young people walked out of schools, colleges and universities and took to the streets to protest against this government's brutal attacks.
And it was this mass action, organised for the most part without the support of NUS, which has forced the government to make some concessions.
The recent NUS governance review, forced through by the right wing, was designed to weaken the voice of opposition within NUS.
As a result of delegate entitlements being cut, only 700 were present at the conference - for an organisation which the leadership claims represents seven million students!
Some student unions have such a lack of democracy within them that lots of 'delegates' were effectively selected rather than elected, with elections not being held or publicised properly.
A very large proportion of those present were sabbatical officers, and Labour Students was the most dominant force. There was a left-wing minority at the conference, larger than in previous years and mobilised as a result of the recent student movement, but this was not enough to defeat the right.
When it came to votes, the outcomes reflected the make-up of the conference.
The motion calling for a national NUS demonstration against cuts in the autumn was narrowly defeated. Outgoing NUS president Aaron Porter falsely counterposed local and national action.
The conference also passed policies supporting 'efficiency savings' (a euphemism for cuts) and students being used as cheap labour through unpaid or low paid internships, and effectively gave up the fight to save EMA and stop tuition fee rises.
The election results continued in the same vein as the rest of the conference. Labour Party member Liam Burns was elected president - quickly announcing that he would not support lecturers who strike during exam periods.
Even worse, as the new average tuition fee was declared as £8,679.20, Liam Burns has been quoted as saying that the battle on fees has been lost. Other winning candidates were cut from the same cloth.
This defeatism will not be shared by the mass of young people. The potential of the NUS to lead this fightback, with all its resources, is huge.
But with a deadweight leadership unwilling to act, it can often hinder rather than help those who are willing to struggle. The conference has changed very little and the tasks of activists, including in Socialist Students, remain the same.
In the absence of fighting student unions, the need for well organised, democratic anti-cuts campaigns in every school, college and university has never been greater.
We need to continue and escalate action locally, demanding college and university managements refuse to implement government cuts and fee rises. Southwark council has pledged to provide funding for a scheme similar to EMA payments for students in the area.
This should be demanded and fought for elsewhere.
Support for and shared action with workers and trade unionists fighting cuts is also crucial. The UCU lecturers' union strike represented an important shift in the fightback.
If teachers and other workers take strike action to defend pensions and education this summer, students should strike and demonstrate in support of them.
NUS will not be organising a national student demonstration in the autumn, but this should not stop one from happening! When the Jarrow march (see below) arrives in London on 5 November, students should join them to protest.
In The Socialist 20 April 2011:
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