Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/564/6827
NUS leadership severs links with students
Build a mass movement for free education
The National Union of Students (NUS) governance review was passed at an extraordinary conference on 20 January in Wolverhampton. Socialist Students members who attended opposed this attack on democracy.
Without going through a normal annual conference, these changes have been put through by two extraordinary conferences; the first called at such short notice that many delegates were not elected, the second in the exam period. Debate was kept to a minimum.
The new NUS constitution means that it is virtually impossible for students to propose motions to conference for discussion on conference floor; that the final say on all national campaigns is in the hands of self-selecting bureaucrats, and that the obligation to elect delegates to conferences is open to removal for some student unions.
NUS is now more akin to a charity that lobbies for students' interests than a body that has the potential to carry out mass action through the involvement of its members.
This year the government is reviewing the cap on university top-up fees and is likely to raise them. It is also proposing to make graduates work for below-minimum wage rates as part of the National Internship Scheme. These attacks on students will provoke huge opposition. The NUS is not now in a position to effectively lead a fightback. But it will be out of struggles and mass action to defend students' rights that a genuine new student movement can grow.
Socialist Students initiated the Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF), which has led the way in terms of national action against fees and organising days of action over the course of the last two years, involving hundreds of students in over 50 universities and colleges around the country.
CDF and Socialist Students explain that students need a mass force that is capable of giving effective leadership to the student struggle. That means a discussion about building a new national body with serious weight behind it.
However, in the absence of a broad left or any alternative structures, the NUS will remain, in the eyes of the government, the media etc, the established voice of students. Many student unions view their relationship with the national body as a means of getting discounted beer and other goods rather than primarily as a political one. Without mass developments outside NUS, it is possible that a layer of activists could be attracted to the NUS, only to be frustrated.
Although extremely unlikely, it is also not impossible that the NUS could continue to play some role in campaigning against fees, even organising demonstrations if it was put under pressure and risked losing its dominant position as 'the' voice for students.
Therefore it is unlikely that these fundamental changes to the NUS will be fully felt immediately. Only as a result of mass action led by activists outside the NUS structures will the domination of NUS be undermined.
Socialist Students will continue to participate in the NUS structures, so as not to abandon any activists that are attracted to it by false hopes, or any possibility of gaining a wider audience of students for our ideas of struggle and socialism. While there is no new national body, we do not call for student unions to disaffiliate from the NUS.
A march has been called through London on 25 February, actively involving some campaigning student unions and student groups, including Socialist Students. This has been organised outside of the NUS structures, although it is supported by a number of NUS-affiliated student unions.
A march, even a small one, will be a positive step forwards, and if organised in a democratic and open way, could play a significant role in building a fighting student movement.
In The Socialist 28 January 2009:
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