A radical new direction for the NUS?

The logic of a radical vision for democratic education is winning students over, writes James Elliott.

The logic of a radical vision for democratic education is winning students over, writes James Elliott

Often defeated on policy debate after policy debate and used to seeing all their candidates taken apart in the elections, the NUS Left made some gains at this year’s National Conference, most stunning of all being the passing of free education for the first time since 2008.

Yet this was hardly a sweeping victory for the Left. The two leftwing presidential candidates, Daniel Cooper and Aaron Kiely, were crushed by incumbent Toni Pearce. The Left also lost important votes on a national demonstration, campaigning for rents to be capped, and for universities to operate zero-hour free zones.

The NUS has been in long decline over the last two decades. It has shifted from being a National Union of Students, capable of even overturning some of Thatcher’s anti-union legislation when she was Education Secretary in the early 1970s, to a National Union of Sabbs, acting as a parliamentary pressure group and abandoning tactics of mass mobilization and industrial power.

The two worst examples of this are the Blairite MPs Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy, who both went from being NUS President to legislating for tuition fees in Blair’s government. In the words of Owen Jones, “Murphy’s approach to politics was honed from his days in Labour Students, in practice long a recruiting ground for the sort of desperate political careerist who practises party conference speeches in front of bathroom mirrors from the age of six”.

Sadly, that still applies to many in NUS.

This is not to smear the current leadership, many of whom are principled campaigners, but it has long been decried that the NUS has lost its teeth and doesn’t have any bite left. This has come at a time when education has been gradually privatised, from universities outsourcing their staff to Michael Gove’s intention to run schools for profit. Simply put, this is a time when we really need an NUS with some fight.

But at this year’s Conference, NUS delegates set out their intention to overturn decades of Thatcherite education policy.

A motion was passed to campaign for free education, funded by progressive taxation of the rich, democratic control of the banks and clamping down on tax evasion. The Labour party were called on to stop pandering to ‘anti-migrant politics’, while a campaign to hold weeks of action against the selling off of student loans passed Conference with almost no opposition.

The further links between students and workers’ struggles were also underlined, with Conference passing policy in favour of 5:1 pay ratios, support for UCU’s marking boycott, and default support for any staff strike. The issue of university repression came up, with Conference voting to create a legal fund for victimised activists and a ‘#copsoffcampus’ motion passed, calling for institutions to prevent police coming onto their sites without permission from students, as is the case in Latin America.

On many of these motions, most notably free education and the legal fund, the leadership found they were voting in the minority, and were defeated.

While encouraging, the position for the Left in NUS remains precarious. It will be difficult to ensure the executive implement some of the less substantive policies, such as campaigning for free education, but others such as a legal fund and weeks of action ought to have seen progress in time for next year’s conference to avoid awkward questions.

What the Left must remember is the struggle for free and democratic education is not won at NUS Conference, or on the National Executive Council. It is won by struggling on campuses, organising students and workers together, using direct action and exercising industrial power in a way that has won victories at the University of London in the Tres Cosas campaign.

There will always be high and low points of struggle in the student movement, and this Conference gives us the mandate to continue organising and fighting even when the government is silent on higher education. A radical new direction for NUS though? No, not yet. But the logic of a radical vision for democratic education is winning students over.

James Elliott is on the NUS National Executive Council for 2014-15

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