Reflections of a SU President on #demo2012

by Nathan Bolton, President at Essex SU & Education Activist Network

Click on image for resources for #demo2012

After attending the NUS Higher Education Zone Conference in Manchester this week, I thought I’d blog my thoughts on the event, as well as addressing some wider political questions around the demonstration and the movement.

For those who aren’t aware, the NUS Zone conferences are billed as events to steer policy of the Union in the run up to the annual conference and shape the political dialogue within its democratic structures. In fact, the conversations are one way, from the leadership to those assembled in front of them, and the ability of individuals to seriously influence policy are negated by the undemocratic nature of the event. Whilst this is not unexpected – it is important to set this premise to put into context the rest of the post.

The event therefore for the Left is little more than an opportunity to sound out the leadership on the activities of the Union and speak with Sabbatical officers around the country – particularly now about the 21.11.12 national demonstration.

It is clear that there is a feeling of disorientation within the student movement since the defeat of 2010. This is clear in campuses across the UK where students are pressurized by the prospect of student debt, the necessity of a ‘good’ degree (2:1 or 1st) and Universities stressing graduate ‘employability’. The effect of this is to accentuate competition between students and weaken the bonds of solidarity between them.

This disorientation stretches even to the Left – students who became activists in 2010 notice most keenly that the level of struggle is much lower and without a vote to use as a signpost their responses range  from demoralisation to ultra-leftism.  So what does that mean for the movement?

The NUS leadership and the demonstration

From the experience of Manchester last week, it is clear that NUS has spent the summer and first weeks of term attempting in vain to quieten dissent – both from the Unions on the right, who are as against the national demonstration as they were in annual conference, and those on the left who feel that the demonstration, and particularly its slogan fail to fulfill the mandate passed at conference.

NUS is not in a position to either provide political leadership for the demonstration, nor put its organisational weight behind the further action post-demo which is so important. The perspective of the leadership at the Manchester conference can be summed up in short: ‘Students are angry, education is under attack but NUS has neither the political ability or will to defend education. We need a demonstration of 10,000 who will glibly shuffle through London, go home and lead soft campaigns “in the community” and become the  door knockers for Labour in 2015′.

NUS wants a small demonstration as a stick with which to beat the left. It would for the leadership prove to the student movement that the tactics of the street and the strike, as shown most brilliantly in Quebec, are not applicable to the UK. This bankruptcy of the NUS, especially with the ‘Quebec model’ looming large will reignite the arguments for a new campaigning national students union, like that of CLASSE. So what are our tasks and do we have the capability to live up to them?

Tasks of the left 

The NUS at the Zone Conference was fixated on the idea of ‘public value’ – how does our movement and our Union theorise the idea of Universities as a public good? This is clearly a step forward. The language used by both NUS and other Sabbatical officers shows a shift toward the rejection of marketisation of education and uses many of the rhetorical flourishes of the left.

Despite this shift, it is clear that what NUS lacks is the political capability and will to lead a defence of education on the basis of these values. It cannot again be in the situation of 2010 where the movement nearly moved outside of its control. Sabbatical officers and activists are invited to discuss the ideological avenues of what education would look like as a public good, but not crucially how to fight for it and win.

We are in a position in which free education, student grants and the reversal of cuts to arts and humanities are as “utopian” as the proposal of £6,000 fees of the Labour Party. In this climate, we need to re-orientate the movement around these simple principles and demands.

  • Education is not under attack in isolation. Austerity due to the financial crisis has pushed governments to cut state expenditure to increase profitability and prove themselves as defenders of ruling class interests. We need unity with all those who are losing out as a result of austerity measures.
  • The single biggest blow to marketisation in education would be if we no longer had to pay for it – we must demand immediately free education, funded by taxing the rich.
  • Fees are not the only barriers to education – many students are priced out of halls, equipment and the other essentials that a student requires. We must demand the installation of a system of living grants.
  • Investment in education, both HE and FE to relieve under-staffed and under equipped institutions funded by taxation of the rich.

On such a programme, we need to work toward the maximum possible unity between the existing national and local education campaigns such as the Education Activist Network, Campaign for the Public University, Free Education Network, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the local anti-cuts groups and assemblies. Our focus must be on forming a coherent strategy for both making the demonstration highly political  and carry these demands, but crucially be able to initiate activities after the demonstration to take the anger that will be on display on the 21st back to our campuses into something unified and effective.

It is without doubt that this academic year will be difficult -but we must throw ourselves into making the demonstration on the 21st big, but crucially promote our local networks to build organisations outside of the NUS which can lead the movement to such victories was were seen in Quebec.

This article does not necessarily reflect all those active in the Education Activist Network. Have your say – email

The Education Activist Network is organising an open organising meeting at SOAS at 7pm on November 7. Click here

For a full report from EAN Conference (click here) and Action points (click here)

About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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