Following Aaron Porter’s announcement that he is stepping down when he has completed his term in office, the race is on for the next President of the National Union of Students. With the student movement more high-profile than ever, the contest is significant for students and non-students alike.
There are three candidates standing: Mark Bergfeld, Liam Burns and Shane Chowen. In the last of three interviews, I interview Mark Bergfeld, member of the NUS National Executive and spokesperson of theEducation Activist Network. Mark tweets as @mdbergfeld.
1) What is the alternative to tuition fees and the marketisation of education?
It is interesting that you start the interview by asking about an alternative. I think the recent demonstrations, walk-outs and occupations have shown that alternatives are really needed.
We must not only propose an alternative to fees and the marketisation but also to the free market mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ and the cuts. Our struggle over education informs the latter.
The students’ movement clearly fights for a free education. This must go hand in hand with transforming our universities into places of critical learning, research and teaching. This will become increasingly difficult with higher fees and more cuts to come.
But this rise in fees has shown people what happens when you let the market into any area of our lives. The times are dark but our campuses are explosive and can act as bastions of resistance in the fight against austerity and another world beyond fees, cuts and job losses.
2) How could the NUS have played things differently with the new student movements that emerged after last November’s NUS/UCU demo?
Already before November 10 the walk-out group for November 24 counted more than 5000 members on facebook. I even raised it with various members of the NEC. Many of them liked the idea, but Millbank changed everything.
Aaron Porter was foolish to condemn the students as a small and violent minority, label these acts despicable and then retract from his statements.
What the NUS leadership should have done is come in behind the call for walk-outs instead of discouraging students to do so.
But what we need is a national Union which leads the struggle. After the 50k-strong demo, NUS could have easily called for an indefinite student strike until Browne was off the table.
Students in Puerto Rico had just won, students in France were fighting back and Greece had seen 6 general strikes in 6 months. We could have mobilized all the union’s resources to fight back against Clegg and Cameron.
At the same time our Union’s members were being witch-hunted by the media and hunted down by the police. Our Union should unequivocally defended each and every of its students. Instead we had to set up a defend the right to protest campaign helping students with legal and moral aid on a shoe string budget.
3) The NUS has been damaged by revelations that it secretly suggested that the Coalition cut student grants and charge market rates of interest on student loans; as well as by describing elements of the Government’s education policies as “progressive”. Are you willing to distance yourself from this?
From this I think I have made it very clear that I am a candidate who stands on the platform of free education for all. The policies are anything but progressive. They are the most regressive set of policies which will take higher education back to the Stone Age and fasten the process of turning our universities into mere learning factories.
4) Under your leadership, would the NUS support and build for new protests and/or non-violent direct action?
Desperate times like these mean we cannot continue with business as usual.
The poll tax was voted through parliament and later defeated by mass protests, the CPE laws in France which curtailed young workers’ rights was voted through parliament and subsequently could not be implemented to due to pressure from the streets.
At this year’s NUS conference we are calling for another national demonstration in the autumn. This could be used as a launchpad for a strike movement in the colleges and universities.
We face a real fight now. The UCU is balloting for strike action over jobs and pensions. The students need to come in behind that and argue for a shutdown of our education on the day of the strike. Our Union could be taking a lead on that but is failing to do so.
5) What are your thoughts on the occupations that swept many university campuses across the country?
We had more than 40 occupations at colleges, schools and univeristies. They became contagious and were shown to be the main tool to build the Dec 9 demonstration. Many of them I managed to visit and see how they were used as organising hubs.
Any movement has new forms of democracy from below and the occupations served to be that new form when traditional structures like the NUS failed to lead the struggle.
In 2009, I led the occupation over the Israeli attack on Gaza and last academic year I led the occupation of the Estates management at Essex Uni in which we won a 16.5% rent reduction. In both cases, I felt extremely empowered by the experience.
As the cuts hit at our colleges, occupations will spring up again and become even more of a focus.
6) One of the striking features of the protests since November has been the involvement of sixth formers. How could the NUS involve these newly politicised young people?
The political level of these young adults is astonishing. They have displayed an even higher level of self-organisation and determination than the univeristy students.
Currently, FE students are under-represented in NUS. There are barriers to entering NUS which cannot simply be overcome by affiliation. What NUS however could do is give its official backing to the walk-outs and demonstrations so that FE students are less likely to feel repercussions or lose their EMA.
7) How would you describe your overall strategy for defeating the Government’s agenda?
The Coalition has no mandate to cut as no one voted for these cuts.
The students have created a deep political crisis within the Coalition government. Their display of people’s power has rocked the Coalition to its foundations. This is only being vindicated by the fact that they can’t sell of the forests and are coming under real pressure over the question of the NHS.
The students have made it clear that they are fighting for each and every person under attack. March 26 thus becomes a central focus when everyone can come together and display the people’s power that shook Mubarak in Egypt.
People’s power though was not enough to force Mubarak down and won’t be enough to force Cameron and Clegg out of office. We need to learn Greek and use March 26 as a launchapad for co-ordinated strike action leading up to a general strike.
The militancy of the students coupled with the strenghth of the unions can break the coalition.
Would you link up with trade unions as part of a broader movement against the cuts agenda? If so, how?
I always have said that 400 students can block a road, 400 train drivers can bring a country to a halt. How do we though get workers on board? This now has become a real question to answer.
The question of education has galvanised the movement. Whether you are 5, 15 or 50 years old you should have the right to education. Life-long learning has always been a demand of the trade union movement.
Just imagine, if Len McLuskey had called lunchtime rallies at every Unite workplace in the country. I know that some workers of the RMT announced our demos on the tubes. That shows the links we have built so far. But it needs to go much further.
We need to get every student to the demonstration on March 26 and bring the flavour of the student demos to the Unison branch secretary.
9) You’re not a member of the Labour Party – but would you work with Labour activists who are opposed to the Government’s cuts agenda?
Activists like myself cannot cut themselves off from Labour Party members. The Labour Party is a mass membership organisation with significant weight in the working class and its organisations.
If we are to succeed in breaking the Coalition and defeating the austerity agenda this will necessitate Labour Party members being at the core of the struggle, and people from the anti-capitalist left like myself standing shoulder to shoulder with them.
We though need to stress that we cannot have Labour councillors doing the dirty work of the ConDems and voting against the cuts. If they want to be part of this movement, they need to vote against. And if that means breaking the law and Pickles coming in, let him come.
At the same time, we cannot have a NUS which tells its members that the fight over price is over. Our union needs to set example and defy the Tories’ austerity agenda. But our struggle can only succeed if members and sections of the Labour Party align themselves with us.
10) What reforms would you support to make the NUS more democratic?
For years now delegate entitlements have been slashed. This means that most delegates at conference are full-time officers rather than students. We will be submitting a motion to re-instate the delegate entitlements to the level of 2008 (pre-Governance Review). This would enable ordinary students to be part of the decision-making process.
Secondly, we need to preserve the autonomy of the Liberation campaigns. This is continuously being undermined. In our struggle for a more democratic NUS these campaigns are beacons of hope as they clearly equip activists with tools and the opportunity to campaign on issues such as anti-racism/anti-fascism as well as the US/UK imperialism in the Middle East.