Nowhere is the abysm between leadership and rank and file more seemingly unbridgeable than in the student movement. In 2009, students in the UK have spontaneously occupied universities to protest Israel’s war on Gaza, to fight against deportations of university cleaning staff, and against massive cuts in teaching staff. At the same time, they face the worst attacks on their conditions in living memory in the form of increasing fees, the end of grants, and the vanishing jobs market. This is clearly an explosive combination.
On the other hand, the leadership of the student movement (i.e. the NUS leaders, led by Wes Streeting), charged with defending students in an era where compromise is clearly not a possibility, has abandoned any pretence of an opposition to student fees, and also recently won its fight to eliminate democracy from the union.
This situation has led many student activists to despair at the NUS itself and various cries for a campaign to launch a new, more democratic NUS have been heard, emanating particularly from Sussex University, a place long known for a high level of activism. In so far as we think a more democratic, fighting national union is needed, Socialist Appeal is sympathetic to such calls. However, it is not sufficient to merely recognise a symptom, or even the root of the problem itself. This is important, but it is only one side of the task and by itself such an attitude is completely inadequate for solving the problems of students. If we are serious about this, we must understand why the NUS is like this and, in considering this, on what basis we may establish a fighting, democratic students union. Socialist Appeal inside the NUS does not think that those student activists calling for a new NUS have conducted such a study, taking into account the history and conditions of the student movement and, as a result, are mistaken in their conclusions. The struggle for a democratic and fighting students union must take place
As we have said, the contradiction between the mood and conditions of students and the student leadership, is great. In fact, it would be difficult for the chasm to be much greater. It is likely that this contradiction, which really represents the lingering of yesterday’s leadership, yesterday’s mood of compromise, will soon cause convulsions which can throw a much more left-wing leadership into power quickly. The question is, how do we, as student activists, help to resolve this contradiction? It is certainly not by setting up a completely separate and new NUS with an ideal constitution, which would in reality be empty and even more removed from the mass of students it claims to represent.
First of all we must be realistic and take into account the fact that the NUS is a very peculiar union indeed. Not only do most of its members (of which there are many millions) have membership for only three years, but they also generally become members when they are very young. As well as this, the NUS is not one union, but quite a loose federation of many small students unions. This means that students are generally quite unaware of their leadership, what to expect from a union, and how to participate in the NUS. This also means that the traditions are weaker. Students are also generally members automatically, unlike other unions. This means they have not actively chosen to participate in the union, or been recruited through some campaign. Finally, the NUS does not represent workers, at least not primarily. Students, as students, do not engage in socialised production under the exploitation of a boss. They work individually and competitively, and come from a range of different backgrounds, and most importantly are moving towards (at least in their heads) different classes.
What does all this mean? First of all, it means that due to the looseness of the NUS, and the intellectual characteristic of the student’s aims, sectarianism is rife in the student movement. It is all too easy for student activists to separate themselves from the mass of students, into warring grouplets representing the various, usually honourable ideals of activists. The fact that university is supposed to be the place where people lay the basis for a career, is also part of the reason why there is so much careerism in the student movement, a phenomenon we are all opposed to.
For these reasons, a sense of history, a broad analysis of the way in which the student movement must develop as it turns to the left and patience whilst we engage in the long and non-linear task of helping build this movement, are absolutely necessary to ensure we do not slip into sectarianism and cut ourselves off from the mass of students, looking for quick solutions and eventually growing frustrated and giving up.
But the conditions of the student movement described so far are, on their own, too pessimistic. Many times it has been said that the mood of the students is like a barometer of society, anticipating the coming radicalisation of the labour movement. This is because students are free from the burdens of tradition and routine, are often engaged in the questioning of our society in their studies, and tend to have more free time than workers. And although the latter factor is being significantly undermined by the increasing proletarianisation of student life (indeed, the vast majority of students work part-time in term time, just to cover basic expenses and to avoid slipping into too much debt), this also means that as well as most students now coming from a working class background, most suffer some of the worst exploitation in a workplace.
| The NUS must be reclaimed,not abandoned to careerists
In this way, students are embroiled more and more in the problems of workers and the labour movement. And thanks to the unprecedented economic attacks students are facing since the introduction of top-up fees and withdrawal of grants, both of which effectively went unchallenged by the NUS leadership, students are consequently painfully aware of the crisis of employment which affects them most severely. Finally, students are badly affected by the housing crisis, since they are forced into some of the worst housing conditions under the control of some of the most crooked landlords, which is a scandal. These are all problems faced by students en masse, and the distance between the ideal of student life, and the reality, has the potential to cause mass student unrest.
Now we have already stated that there is a vast chasm between the leadership of the NUS, who in reality represent only the atomisation and lack of time of the mass of students, and those they claim to represent. Part of the reason for this, as was said, is the aspects of careerism inherent in areas of student life. Clearly a small layer of students desire a career in politics and the NUS is the best existing platform for their ambitions. By and large, they do not care about the NUS itself, of have any real understanding of students’ interests – it is historical accident that the platform for their careers as bourgeois politicians is in a union.
But why are such people elected to represent students, if they do not care about them? It would be completely wrong to draw the pessimistic conclusion that students are right wing – for one thing those elected do not run on a right-wing platform (they could hardly say ‘vote for me and I will do nothing about top-up fees’), generally they run on vaguely leftish programmes. But they do not carry them out. Why are they allowed to get away with it with so little fuss - and why do more or less the same characters get elected again the following year?
One fact stares us in the face – the absence of the mass participation of students in their own union. As with workers, a student’s time is limited, and thanks to a heavy workload and having to work to pay the bills, he or she will most likely keep their head down for the duration of university, whatever they think about their conditions. It is also true that students have been progressively alienated by the weakness of their own leaders, who inspire no confidence in the students at all. The responsibility for this must be laid on the shoulders of the NUS leaders.
Furthermore, students are reliant upon the situation in society as a whole – if the working class is in no mood to fight, this atmosphere will pervade society and in turn universities. It is very difficult for students to win serious reforms without the participation of workers in their struggle, because these reforms are tied up with the political and economic condition of society as a whole – for instance, the return of grants would require a massive increase in education spending for all, and an end to the problems of housing would require a national programme of house building. However, it should be added that the increasing proletarianisation of students has massively increased the likelihood of a mass student-worker movement for reforms.
Rather than being a positive representation of the state of the mood of students, the careerist leadership of the NUS is merely a negative image of the student mood – the frustrations and patience (which is reaching breaking point) of the students, has allowed an entirely separate section to establish what looks like a talking shop with no reference to students at all.
Now since the basis for this hopeless leadership lies in the withdrawal of student participation, and nothing else, we must say that all attempts to set up a rival and more radical NUS are doomed to failure and bureaucratic mess. If this leadership is the expression, and not the cause, of the withdrawal of students, then no amount of left-wing electoral combinations, organised completely independently of a mass student movement, will have any effect.
This is to say nothing of the attempt to set-up a new NUS independently of the mass of students in the hope that they will later see sense and join. In reality, in such a climate of a lack of student participation, a new student union established without their involvement or consent will inevitably pass by the majority of students unnoticed. And we must add that when the students do move en masse, it will be because they need to, to defend and improve their conditions. It will not because they are disgusted by the right-wing leadership and attracted by the saintly appearance of the untarnished-because-unused alternative student’s union, if it ever even comes into existence.
We are in complete agreement with other activists over the disastrous state of NUS democracy following the governance review, which passed an ‘extraordinary conference’ that was called for January 2009. These rules will certainly make our tasks harder, mainly because the leadership will hide behind the rules and the ‘advice’ of the ‘experts’ that are now called in to tell the NUS to cut its services. Socialist Appeal was completely opposed to the governance review and recognises its passing as a step back.
However, it would be extremely melodramatic to give up on the NUS on the basis of some bureaucratic rules. If we adopted such a stance, how would we ever participate in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, which places all sorts of ‘insurmountable’ barriers of rules to our eventual goal. Although the new rules may represent a real step back, was the NUS beforehand not extremely bureaucratic? Why now has it suddenly undergone a qualitative transformation, and become so much material for time wasting and nothing else? This has not been explained. These activists merely tell us ‘the process of bureaucratisation has become irreversible, we must abandon ship and construct a new organisation!’
When we look at an organisation, particularly one of struggle such as the NUS, do we see simply a collection of rules? And if that were the case, how would such an organisation ever change its rules? If the NUS’ previous rules were not too bureaucratic, why, and how, did they transform into more bureaucratic rules?
But rules are only ever ink on paper, or light on a screen. They reflect today’s (or more often, yesterday’s) balance of social forces in the given organisation. It is entirely possible that for a time the NUS could come under the pressure of a mass movement of students, resulting in a much more left-wing leadership, whilst retaining today’s undemocratic structures. Such an NUS would in reality be much more democratic than an empty alternative NUS with the most democratic constitution, but which meant nothing to most students.
The history of the NUS is itself proof of this process. It was formed in 1922 when the majority of students in the Universities were drawn from the wealthy. Generally, students were overwhelmingly hostile to the labour movement, as their behaviour in the General Strike of 1926 demonstrated (bus loads of students were bussed in as strike breakers). The NUS was strictly ‘non-political’, in other words completely accepted the frame-work within which it worked and avoided any criticism of the status quo. It was exclusively concerned with student welfare and conditions in the most narrow context.
The leadership of the NUS saw it as an ‘educational pressure group’ and prided themselves on their good relations with the Department of Education. Needless to say, a position on the NUS Executive was seen as an important stepping stone to a good career in the professions, the civil service or the bureaucracies of the Tory Party, the Labour Party or the trade unions.
But this began to change in the early 1960s. Expansion of higher education drew in not only much larger numbers of students, but students from much wider social strata, including a proportion of working class students. Rapid expansion gave rise to new tension in the universities. At the same time, the students, who can be regarded as a barometer of underlying trends in society, began to sense impending change and to move in unconscious anticipation of a new awakening of the labour movement. This was bound to shake up the student unions and bring changes in the NUS itself.
In 1965 the NUS supported the NUT’s salaries campaign and organised protests against the government’s reactionary White Paper on Immigration, which had serious implications for overseas students. At the same time, there was growing discontent at the undemocratic, bureaucratic structure of the NUS, especially on the part of the new universities and those older universities which had managed to democratise their student unions. How else could an undemocratic union, representing the social composition of the past, transform itself into a democratic one, representing the new social composition?
In 1967 came the most significant development, the formation of the Radical Student Alliance. The RSA was formed against the background of widespread dissatisfaction among students at the NUS. A series of no-confidence votes in the NUS executive was passed in Student Unions throughout the country. Needless to say, many student activists, exasperated with the historical cronyism and careerism of the NUS, abandoned it. But in the end, the NUS was transformed, from within and by a mass student movement, into a more democratic union. There is no reason why this cannot and will not happen today.
As we described above, the mass of students will not move according to theoretical analysis and ideals. They will not be attracted to the principled politics and fighting talk of activists if they do not see themselves reflected in it, i.e. if these activists are organisationally cut off from the vast majority of students. The working class and students do not view their own movement as a source of intellectual pride, but as a necessary collective struggle against their current conditions. The first port of call is therefore the largest organisation in (perceived) opposition to the status quo.
Since the leadership of the NUS actually represents the adaptation to the status quo, the mass student movement against the status quo must initially take the form of a struggle in the NUS against this leadership. Hence the above example of the movement in the NUS in 1967. We should also add that students will not immediately realise that the NUS leadership represents the status quo.
This is the logic of the movement which necessitates that activists participate patiently in the NUS (and outside it, where possible) to win the struggle against the present leadership and their governance review.
Many activists, in their frustration, have understandably labelled the post-governance review NUS a ‘charity’ or ‘pressure group’, rather than a democratic fighting union. We are also told that the NUS means nothing to students now, and that it is little more than a body to get cheaper beer and TopShop discounts. First of, we must point out that, given the financial difficulties and stress of student life, a union which organises social activities and cheaper products is not meaningless to students and should not be abandoned.
If, as some activists have argued, a new NUS is built by ‘vanguard’ universities such as Sussex disaffiliating and forming their own independent and radical union, what would this mean? It would mean forcing higher prices onto students at Sussex, and it would mean occupying leading Sussex activists’ time with organising the complex and slow task of forming a new national student organisation, bit by bit, when we already have one. This would in fact be much more bureaucratic and time wasting than struggling to democratise the NUS we have now. For this reason, we disagree with those activists who have argued that to engage in such a struggle would be a bureaucratic waste of time, as if establishing a whole new national union structure would be quick and painless.
Organising independently of the mass of students will lead to a dead end. One cannot create an organisation ideally, declare it, and then realise it by waiting for everyone to join and give it life. An organisations structures are an expression of an already existing membership. In one article, an activist involved in this movement even complains that his motion that the ‘new NUS’ “take on flesh and blood” was not supported! But flesh and blood cannot be created by ink and paper! Unfortunately you cannot vote it into existence!
As regards the above statement that the NUS is merely a charity or pressure group, and some sort of consumer’s association, we believe that those who draw this conclusion are making another mistake. It is one for thing for the NUS to be this in the eyes of its current leadership, quite another in the eyes of students. To confuse leadership with organisation as a whole can have dangerous conclusions. According to this logic, the 87% of students who voted against NUS disaffiliation at Sussex (which was the one place this was likely to go through on a left wing basis – the Guardian here lists the vast array of other student unions to reject disaffiliation: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2003/nov/20/students.uk) are clearly in favour of such a superficial union, and are therefore a lost cause to activists. Either that, or they do not see the NUS as merely a charity, and actually value its mass structure as a powerful tool for student interests.
In actual fact, it is for precisely this reason that on most campuses the Tories, whilst using the NUS to further their careers, tend to launch campaigns for disaffiliation. They understand that it is a mass organisation, and would prefer it to be weakened, benefiting rich universities and rich students. We should not align ourselves with such people.
The historic task for the student movement is the building of a fighting union, linked to the labour movement in struggle against privatisation and fees, and for grants and a mass programme of green house building. The conditions and rights of students have criminally been allowed to fall some way off what they once were. But we do not want simply to go back to the situation of post-war grants. That is not enough. If we limit ourselves to this, we will be weakened and driven even further back than where we are now.
The present crisis of capitalism has destroyed the bourgeois state’s capacity to provide serious education reforms. The whole situation demands that students struggle with workers nationally and internationally to overthrow capitalism and transform society. The experiences in Europe of 1968, and the recent university and factory occupations throughout Europe and the world, show that this is possible if we adopt the right strategy and tactics. Ultimately, the struggle for this movement lies within the NUS and the mass workers organisations. It can only be achieved by patient work. And it is the mass of the students and workers, not handfuls of sincere activists, that will transform these organisations.