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A turning point in the National Union of Students?

freeeducation copyThis could be a turning point for the National Union of Students (NUS) and the student left. Delegates at the recent NUS’s national conference ended over a decade of NUS opposition to free education. The result is a triumph for principled student activists, inside and outside of NUS, and it is a further defeat for Blairism. However, it is only meaningful if students and activists on the ground have a clear understanding of what has happened, and what it means.

For years, NUS has been plagued by inaction and spinelessness. It began in 1996 when NUS abandoned its commitment to free education, a cynical manoeuvre by Labour Students – the faction which has historically dominated NUS – to pave the way to New Labour tuition fees, and other than one brief period in 2002-3, NUS has openly opposed free education. They got away with it for years while the student left was occupied elsewhere: anti-globalisation, the Iraq war, climate change.

But in 2010, the year we became involved in the student movement in earnest, education funding became the topic on campuses across the UK. The failings of the NUS leadership became clear to everyone when they denounced the University and Colleges Union’s free education position and went on to condemn the largest demonstrations and the biggest wave of occupations in the history of the British student movement.

NUS was unable to lead. The movement of 2010 was led, if it could be called leading at all, by less formal networks such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and thousands of students, many of them still in school, acting on their own initiative. These activists fought inside and outside of students’ unions and NUS. Where possible we won concessions from NUS but we were always prepared to organise on our own terms: the campaign against the higher education white paper in 2011 saw 10,000 march on the City of London under NCAFC’s banner on a budget of just a few thousand pounds.

There are a number of reasons why free education passed at national conference 2014, after years of being heavily defeated. One was the unusually open and democratic spirit of the conference. Since the 2008 governance review, a measure introduced by the leadership, conference has been smaller, shorter and more dominated by sabbaticals – but 2014 had a quite different atmosphere, and was characterised by its disdain for internal figures of authority.

Another was that the graduate tax had become a shibboleth for many of those who supported it, as opposed to a real argument. When forced to defend their position in front of a conference which included a large number of first-time delegates and non-sabbaticals, much less networked with the leadership and much more likely to be swayed by arguments rather than personal endorsements from senior national executive members, opponents of free education simply read out robotic speeches denying the existence of a progressive taxation system and apparently counterposing public investment in universities with health funding. This was a stretch given that the motion called for “the democratisation of our society’s wealth” and explicitly called for better funded benefits and public services.

Overwhelmingly, the shift in mood inside NUS reflects a broader shift inside trade unions and the Labour Party. Central to the Blair era was the idea that the best way to help the poor was to gradually abandon universal public services in favour of means testing and private sector involvement. Free education is rooted in the idea that public services should be provided for all and funded by taxation of the rich and big business. It directly opposes any kind of user contributions. The most vocal opponents of free education were always student Blairites, and their ideas have gradually lost traction in NUS and in Labour (though sadly not very quickly). Labour Students – a Blairite stronghold since the 1990s – suffered a split directly before the conference, which saw a significant layer of leftwing activists in Labour come out with the left.

The world of student activism – in particular that of NUS – is prone to micro-climates. Following the wholesale defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s at the hands of Thatcher, the student movement continued to mobilise at a relatively high level until the late nineties; and many years after the decline of Blairism in the Labour Party, the New Labour right continued to dominate. That micro-climate seems to have been decisively broken at this conference, and the question now is what replaces it.

It is vital that those who won free education and pushed NUS to the left move quickly to consolidate their position. This will not be a question of scrambling for seats on committees, but of mobilisation: free education policy is worth nothing, and can only be temporary, unless there is a dynamic mass movement to put it onto the political agenda – especially in the context of a general election.

The task of building a real movement for free education will require a strategy which combines unity among the left with consistent and confrontational direct action on campuses. There has been a significant sharpening of division and sectarianism on the student left in the past three years around a large variety of issues and, while unity must not come at all costs, the atmosphere must now turn away from anathematisation and towards critical unity.

Perhaps the most crucial element of this new movement will be collective memory and continuity; this is precisely the task for which the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts was created, and it is now its duty to facilitate the creation of a movement for free education which is based on serious internal democracy and unity with workers on campus and beyond.Though it may seem strange to say so in the third person, we are probably both leaving the student movement this year. On 15th June, there will be a national free education organising meeting in London to plan the way forward – open to all activists and groups. You should be there.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. This article was first published by Open Democracy

One Comment

  1. Chris says:

    The NUS should probably be abolished. It’s a breeding ground for PPE hacks.

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