To many students, the NUS represents little more than its discount card. But when it takes a stand, it is students’ first line of defence against education cuts, tuition fee hikes and oppression on campus.
Earlier this April, I and four other delegates went to the NUS Conference to represent Oxford. An annual event, Conference is where NUS policy is decided, and its leadership elected. Over three days delegates discuss motions submitted by individual student unions, ultimately voting on NUS priorities for the coming year.
This April’s conference saw a number of policy victories for the left, successes which follow from the winter’s upsurge in student radicalism. For the first time this decade, the NUS has made a principled commitment to campaign for free education. It is mandated to fight loan-book privatisation, to support staff trade unions in industrial disputes and to build a legal fund for those affected by police or management repression. At the next Conference, all committees and delegations will be gender-balanced, with reserved places for self-identifying women.
There was evidence of a broad political resolve. Delegates voted to actively campaign against UKIP at next year’s general election, to call for full employment and a living wage, to support taxing the wealthy more heavily. For many, these are bold positions that the student movement must adopt if it is to fight in the interests of students under austerity. And yet they have attracted criticism. Detractors argue that the NUS ought only to campaign on issues directly related to higher education. Many disapprove of UKIP’s condemnation, arguing as though the NUS could anti-democratically restrict the motions brought to Conference, or pretend that open xenophobia does not affect students. Some even claim that the Union should not be involved in national politics at all, instead focussing on helping students to learn, and dealing with their localised problems.
These are issues that should be discussed in the run-up to Oxford’s disaffiliation referendum. Beneath the debate lies an existential question: exactly what kind of organisation is the NUS? If it is apparent that the Union has strayed from its basic purpose, then the case for breaking away will be stronger.
So on this we should be very clear: the NUS is an essentially political institution. It is an instrument of collective expression through which students assert themselves in the public sphere. It is a union. Politics is about the power relations between people, and any union is necessarily involved in those relations. There is no neutral space to which it can withdraw. The call for an apolitical NUS is itself based on an ideological vision of students as atomised consumers without shared interests.
If the NUS remains silent, it only endorses the status quo. And if the past few years have shown us anything, it is that the direction of education policy is something to worry about. The only choice is between principled objection and acquiescence. There is no way to ‘represent students’ without actively intervening in national politics.
Neither is there any way to address ‘education issues’ without taking a position on broader social and political questions. It is superficial to criticise attacks on students without understanding their economic context. Tripled fees, slashed funding, pay-cuts for lecturers, outsourcing of university services, increased police presence on campus – none of this can be opposed without also questioning the logic of austerity and the political settlement that drives it.
Of course, this is not to say that the NUS should ignore ‘on-campus’ issues, such as improving teaching and welfare provision. It is simply to point out that the dangers faced by students are political in nature, and so require a political response. Only an NUS animated by principles, and willing to take action on them, can hope to overcome these threats.
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