“When we dare to do things differently we inspire a whole generation to take action.” This was just one of many similar sound bites issued from the leaders of the NUS at the National Conference – superficially rousing, sufficiently vague, so as to avoid taking any strong stances, and completely ironic, given that the very same person – none less than the President of the NUS – spoke out against free education later that day. With a leadership more concerned with name-dropping every single campaign within the NUS than actually offering any clear strategies to take on the problems facing students, it is no wonder that the extent of most people’s exposure to what is meant to be a fighting organisation is limited to their coach ticket discounts.
The problems are numerous: cuts to spending, creeping privatisation, undemocratic university management and higher living costs, to name a few. This orchestrated, nationwide attack, dictated by the regime of austerity, can only be combatted on an organised, nationwide scale; something requiring a level of political engagement sorely lacking at the moment. We’ve been hearing the same story over and over again, from the journalists calling us the most politically apathetic generation in history, to the students lamenting the rise of lad culture – we just don’t care enough. Every year, student unions are reminded of this problem all too clearly when student elections are held, with national average voter turnout consistently below 15%. Every year, the proposed solutions are the same: “encourage and engage with students about the importance of student democracy”, highlight the work already done by the union, or, falling short of that, simply bribe them with prizes.
These measures are missing the point entirely. In addition to the patronising implication that, essentially, we don’t know what’s best for ourselves; they are merely organisational solutions to a political problem. How can the majority of students be engaged if they don’t think the NUS, or even their own student union, will affect their lives in any meaningful way? The same goes for the General Elections. With the three main parties offering nothing but three different flavours of austerity, of course the youth, who have been hit the hardest, will feel disillusioned from politics as usual. Even the leadership of the NUS acknowledged that “a feeling of powerlessness and precariousness is increasingly common among the rising generation”. Once again, the suggested course of action, a motion grandiosely entitled “A new deal for the next generation”, is lacklustre, to say the least, focussing on “maximis[ing] voter registration”.
The only way to engage the majority of students is to adopt policies that will clearly impact their lives – and act on them. Everyone seems to have forgotten the mood of 2010, when the demonstrations organised by the NUS, standing firmly against cuts and fees, attracted crowds of up to 50000 people. Had the NUS built on this by offering a clear, fighting program that stood for socialist policies such as affordable housing, free education and an end to privatisation, the response would have been overwhelmingly positive. Instead, the leadership failed to take any strong stance or even to organise a demo the following year, causing the movement to die out, as well as alienating the majority of students.
This weakness was evident at the National Conference last week, where the general consensus seemed to be that compromise for the sake of “being realistic” should be the guiding principle for deciding any policy. For example, a point calling for the capping of student rent was deleted on the basis that it would “damage [the NUS’s] credibility”. This kind of argument undercuts the entire purpose of the NUS, which supposedly exists to “represent the interests of students” as a fighting, campaigning organisation. How can we hope to make change if we are compromising before we even start taking action?
The Conference also voted against defending education against all cuts; against elected and accountable executive posts at universities; and against the banning of zero-hour contracts. Compounding the problem was the fact that, due to the time wasted on endless procedural motions and election speeches, a huge amount of motions covering important issues such as corporate tax dodging, cuts to legal aid and public ownership of the banks were not discussed, and would instead be either forgotten or passed along to the National Executive Council for review – a council that had just spoken out and voted against free education. Democracy at work.
There was, however, a glimmer of hope this year, as a motion for free education was narrowly passed, despite NEC opposition. Except for one year in 2003, the NUS has not supported free education since 1996. Whilst this is an encouraging sign, we should have no illusions as to the extent of this policy’s implementation under the current leadership.
What they don’t realise is that the fight for student engagement and the fight against austerity are one and the same. As an influential organisation representing over 7 million students, the NUS is indispensable if we are serious about winning the battles ahead. The only thing missing is for a leadership that recognises this, and takes a stand, by pushing for socialist policies. This won’t happen easily, and it won’t happen without pressure from below. One thing is certain though: the stakes are too high for us to sit by idly and moan about the current state of affairs. In fact, you could say that we should “dare to do things differently”, because, who knows, we might even “inspire a whole generation to take action.”
[Extended version of article published on Varsity.]
- Marxist students argue for socialist policies at NUS conference 2014
- What attitude should revolutionary students have towards the NUS?
- Student activism and the role of Marxists