Labour Students and the cause of free education

Free education for allNUS Conference 2014 was one of the most leftwing conferences in years, passing a string of radical policies of default support for staff strikes, campaigns for a 5:1 pay ratio, a legal fund for victimised student activists and of course, free education. The graduate tax had become a soft compromise option for many in Labour, a midway point between full blown privatisation under the Tories and the full repudiation of Blairism that free education represents.

By rejecting both fees and a graduate tax, NUS moved into line with Labour-affiliated unions such as the GMB, Unite, UNISON and the TUC in demanding free education. This is a deeper shift in policy than a purely cosmetic change in how education is funded. It represents a stance against privatisation, against the idea that education is a commodity, and the policy clearly calls for education to be paid for by taxing the rich and democratic control of the banking sector. In other words, free education isn’t just a policy, it’s a whole new philosophy of how Labour should behave towards vested interests, private companies and unaccountable power when it is government.

But even as politics in the NUS is shifting to the left, a new panel of ‘experts’ from the Universities UK Vice-Chancellors’ club is reviewing higher education funding, and is expected to call for more punitive terms and conditions on student loans, making students pay back more, and for longer. Meanwhile, if the electorate returns a ConDem coalition, we could expected uncapped tuition fees and full-blown privatisation of higher education.

Throughout much of the discussion of these recent developments, the role of Labour Students has been eclipsed. Labour Students, or ‘NOLS’ as it is often known, were central to NUS dropping its policy of free education back in 1996, to soften the student movement up for Blair’s introduction of tuition fees and consequent marketisation of higher education.  Two NOLS-backed NUS Presidents of that mid-90s era, Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy, went on to become MPs who voted in tuition fees.

Labour Students still remains entrenched and a key faction within the NUS leadership, allying themselves recently with various ‘independents’ and even more rightwing figures at the commanding heights of the union. The organisation has become a closed shop for an insider clique, trotting out stale arguments against universalism and changing their opinions on issues in tune with the Labour leadership, displaying remarkable intellectual flexibility at times.

But times are changing. The new gains made by the Left in the NUS in winning free education was welcomed by many Labour Students. Not the insiders of the NOLS clique, but the ordinary Labour-supporting students who attend our campuses, campaign for our MPs, and are generally excluded and forgotten by NOLS. After years of ignoring our own representatives in the Party and the NUS, it’s time we, as students, got organised and started to make our arguments forcefully and repeatedly.

Following NUS Conference, in which the senior figures of NOLS voted against many of the policies the rest of the Conference passed, myself and a few other dissident NOLSies set up ‘Labour Students for Free Education’, to represent all those students in the Labour party whose views are often overlooked by the NOLS leadership. We are issuing a call-out, to every Labour Student and every Labour Club, to come and get in touch with us: Join our organisation to get a real debate about free education going in Labour Students.

We want to mobilise, club-by-club, all those Labour Students who share our vision of education, and to campaign for that to be adopted as Labour party policy. We’ll produce assiduous research showing how free education would be implemented, in defence of universalism, myth-busting some of the most outrageous arguments of the Labour right (‘free education is bad for access’, ‘Scotland has free education and that means robbing the poor to pay the rich’), and begin to make the case in Labour Students, the Labour Party and NUS for free, public and democratic education, not as a privilege, but as a right.

James Elliott is a founder of Labour Students for Free Education and a member of the NUS National Executive Council for 2014-15.