Will the left pull together to defeat the NUS bureaucracy in its attempt to abolish the last vestiges of democracy in the student ‘union’? Communist Students member Tina Becker reports
What looked like a slightly dull conference organised by Education not for Sale on October 21 suddenly sparked up when a small delegation from the Socialist Workers’ Party came along for the discussion over the proposed attacks on NUS democracy. The NUS leadership has published a NUS white paper on NUS governance, which proposes dramatic changes to its functioning. In effect, national conference and the NEC are to be abolished (see box).
ENS, the student organisation set up by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, had invited most other left groups to discuss a joint campaign against the proposals, but apart from Communist Students and the SWP (aka Student Respect), nobody showed up. Workers’ Power’s youth group, Revolution, did not turn up and did not even send apologies. Socialist Students had promised to send a delegation, but they also didn’t manage to come to the gathering.
On the one hand, it is encouraging to see the AWL and the SWP actually take up a democratic question like this. There normally reigns an attitude of ignorant bliss. And it would indeed be quite easy to simply ignore these attacks (as some of the left clearly do). After all, the current NUS serves chiefly as a springboard for Labourite politicians and other careerists. Hardly any students will know what the NUS does, let alone how it is structured and organised. A campaign to defend this bureaucratic organisation is unlikely to be crowned by immediate success in terms of recruiting new members.
However, the way both Student Respect and ENS (to a lesser degree) are planning to fight against the attacks is pretty much in line with their economistic politics. Both organisations propose to run a very minimalist campaign that focuses almost exclusively on the “maintenance” and “defence” of the existing NUS structures.
Although the ENS published their – slightly preferable – statement widely on the internet on October 15, asking other student organisations on the left for their input, the SWP preferred to do the whole thing in secrecy. Three SWP members, led by Rob Owen (who, like the AWL’s Sofie Buckland, was elected as a part-time member onto the current NUS NEC), surprised everybody at the meeting by simply announcing that Student Respect had already launched their own statement.
In what probably counts in the SWP as a ‘democratic gesture’, Rob then handed out leaflets for the official launch of the new campaign, which featured comrade Buckland and ENS as co-sponsors. “I left a message on your answer machine”, he mumbled, but Sofie protested that she did not know anything about it.
Then ensued a rather unpleasant and predictable squabble over which of the existing campaigns would be in the driving seat of the new, joint one. “We have already registered a website”, pleaded Sofie. “But our’s has more supporters”, countered Rob. AWL member Sacha Ismail tried in vain to convince Rob to launch the campaign “here and now”. But Rob would not budge and did not even agree to the “appointment of an interim body that can organise between now and November 4” (the date when the SWP wants to launch their campaign). He finally agreed to some kind of informal chat with Sofie over how the launch meeting would be carved up.
Not just ‘no’
What both statements have in common is their minimalism. In typical ‘new speak’, the SWP want the campaign to be “as broad as possible”. In reality, the three demands they propose are not broad, but the opposite – very, very narrow1:
- To reject the conclusions of the NUS governance review as a dangerous attack on democracy and student rights.
- To oppose all proposals coming out of the governance review and defend the existing structures.
- To oppose calls for an undemocratic emergency conference.
According to Rob Owen, there are “some groups” who would not be able to support the campaign if it went beyond these narrow slogans. Unfortunately, he could not tell us which groups that might be, because it’s supposed to be still “a secret”. Chances are he was referring to Student Broad Left, the organisation controlled by the shadowy sect Socialist Action (aka Friends of Ken Livingstone). However, on the NUS NEC, SBL member George Woods (and fellow traveller Ruqayyah Collector) failed to oppose the white paper. Looks like we can look forward to some very bold campaigning there…
In response to the SWP’s statement, the AWL comrades present quite rightly made a big fuss about the need to go “beyond the current attacks”. Daniel Randall eloquently spoke about the need to use this campaign for “some blue sky thinking, to put forward our own agenda for education”. Others spoke on the need to “include aspirational demands”. But sadly, the ENS statement does not go much beyond the SWP’s. It also calls chiefly for the “maintenance” of the existing structures.
In a paragraph entitled “Positively, we also want…”, the comrades list a set of four further demands: a longer national conference; for the NUS NEC to meet every six weeks (instead of four times a year); for the expansion of the Block of 12 (to 15); and “a major cutting back of bureaucratic waste and redirection of resources to campaigning”. While the last point is simply empty posturing, the other demands could hardly be described as “blue sky thinking”.
To be fair, Communist Students had not submitted any amendments to the statement before October 21. We will meet before November 4 to discuss our strategy and what kind of platform we think the campaign should be based on. But clearly, we need an approach that goes further than simply saying ‘no’. Not just because the narrow campaign proposed by the SWP is unlikely to inspire anybody and would chiefly be conducted on the level of student unions. But also because we must use this as an opportunity to fight for an expansion of democracy in the NUS.
The current attacks could be a useful springboard for such a broader campaign, which would be far more likely to inspire and mobilise students than a mere defence of the existing crusty structures. One reason why students appear apathetic and uninterested in politics is the highly bureaucratise nature of the NUS. How can we expect students to take seriously the notion of challenging and beating the government when their own organisation is so remote, unaccountable and is clearly little more than a career ladder for wannabe establishment politicians? So, let’s start with our own union.
Democracy must extend wider and go deeper. We would argue that the students, staff and all university workers are the people who should democratically run educational institution, not the vice-chancellors, state bureaucracts or purveyors of pseudo-market imperatives.
We should fight to abolish the direct election of the NUS president and other officers, who should be elected and recallable by the executive. Salaried officials should receive no more than an average skilled worker. There must be full transparency – especially in all dealings with government ministers and commercial concerns.
Strangely, while both statements mention the question of student fees, their abolition is not part of either organisation’s set of proposed demands. Apart from empty posturing about ‘free education for all’, the NUS bureaucracy has hardly put up a fight against student fees and the key slogan at its national demonstration on October 29 2006 was “Keep the cap” – ie, a campaign against further, so-called ‘top up fees’. The current, capped fees of £3,000 per annum are apparently quite allright (Communist Student No1).
An article in The Independent, proudly posted on the NUS website, reports on a recent speech by NUS president Gemma Tumelty to the NUS campaigns convention, where she warned that students would be “stranded on the margins” if they battled on for free higher education. A “realistic campaign” would have to focus on keeping the cap rather than ditching fees altogether. “Do we really think we can win the argument that those who have benefited most from a university education shouldn’t pay more?”2
Clearly, Tumelty’s repulsive attitude needs to be challenged head on. Many students can only pay the £3,000 fee by working ridiculously long hours in the worst kind of McJobs. But it looks like we don’t have to worry too much: “Applications to university have not dropped as a result of higher tuition fees, according to a new analysis”, so the lead of another ‘news item’ posted prominently on the NUS website.3
In reality, this merely reflects the demands of today’s capitalism: a degree is vital to get almost any kind of job. Many young people prefer the burden of £30,000 debts to the prospect of permanently working in the shitty jobs they have to endure in their student days.
Communist Students demands not only the abolition of the student fees – but their replacement with a “living grant”. Everyone in study over the age of 16 should receive grants set at the level of the minimum wage. And not the slave labour rate the current minimum wage is set at by New Labour.
We say that such a minimum wage must be based on the social category of human need. This is not what the government tells us the system can afford: it is the amount of money students actually need to live full lives in contemporary society – to have time to study, discuss and enjoy themselves to the full in this important formative period. Under present conditions, this would be set at a minimum of £300 per week.
November 4, 12noon, room 405, Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London WC1
1 For the full statement, see http://studentrespect.blogspot.com/2007/10/save-nus-democracy.html
2 The Independent October 11 2007 (http://news.independent.co.uk/education/higher/article3045371.ece)
3 The Guardian June 26 2007