SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 177 April 2014

Student struggles and the role of NUS

Students are under siege from the Con-Dem coalition’s drive to privatise education and ramp up extortionate student fees and debt. This comes on top of the lack of jobs and training, racketeer landlords and increased police oppression facing youth in general. A determined fight-back is needed – but from where? CLAIRE LAKER-MANSFIELD looks at the history of the NUS and assesses the state of the student movement today.

From 8-10 April the National Union of Students (NUS) is meeting for its annual national conference. This gathering comes at a critical conjuncture for students, who are in the midst of an intensification of attacks on education. Most of the discussions set to take place, however, will deal only fleetingly with the central issues facing the student movement. The majority of zone policy proposals – special motions given an elevated status and designed to ‘set the tone’ for the debate – are submitted by the right-wing Labour Students leadership. These start from a point of believing there is no viable alternative to students paying for education, that realism means accepting some cuts, and that ‘winning for students’ requires only making demands that will be found acceptable by capitalist politicians.

It falls to Socialist Students and others on the left to attempt to challenge this cosy, career enhancing consensus. However, given the failure of NUS to respond in any adequate way to the current barrage of attacks, not to mention numerous bureaucratic barriers to changing NUS’s direction, many students and activists are now legitimately asking what we stand to gain by taking part in NUS and campaigning for a fighting programme. Are the energies of student socialists not better spent attempting to create an alternative national union?

To answer these questions fully it is necessary to have an understanding of the role of students in fighting austerity and changing society, the nature of NUS as an organisation, and the potential that there is – both for building outside NUS, and for its transformation. An examination of how NUS came to be the organisation it is today – its history and its direction of travel – can be useful for students in analysing our own potential to build the struggle against austerity both inside and outside NUS in the next period.

NUS has undergone profound shifts in its politics and organisation since its establishment 92 years ago. These have reflected big changes in the make-up of the student population, political and social upheavals in society, and developing workers’ and student struggles in Britain and internationally.

When NUS was first established in 1922, higher education remained the preserve of a very privileged few. Most of those studying at universities would have been drawn from the capitalist class itself. The social make-up of students contributed to what was a generally conservative, even reactionary, outlook. The founding member organisations of NUS were, in the main, not known as students' unions, but guilds of undergraduates. The difference was not merely nominal. This reflected the fact that these bodies did not see themselves as unions – particularly not unions which might be likened to, or modelled on, trade unions.

At its foundation, the NUS joined the Imperial Conference of Students (ISC). The name itself gives more than a clue as to the political character of this organisation. The founding student guilds were joined by the inter-varsity association and the International Students Bureau. The latter was responsible for organising student travel. Indeed, for the early part of NUS’s existence, its main function was to act as a travel agency for students. Arguably, the commercial activity that NUS engages in today can be traced back to this. Applying for the NUS Extra Card, which entitles students to discounts, is often the most contact many students now have with the union.

During the 1926 general strike, students were, in many cases, recruited to form part of the scab army that was employed in an effort to defeat it. At Edinburgh University, for example, just over half of nearly 4,000 students enrolled as ‘volunteer workers’. Similarly high numbers of students did the same elsewhere. Nevertheless, the picture was not universal. At Glasgow University, which had a strong Labour club, 94% of students refused to scab.

Scope for radicalisation

But even the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie can, in certain circumstances, undergo a temporary openness to socialist ideas and organisations, particularly as students. Transported into a new environment, for a while insulated from the normal class pressures and given time to explore new ideas, even those of highly privileged backgrounds can sometimes be won to Marxism while at university. The Bolshevik party took seriously the task of working among this section of youth, despite their social make-up in tsarist Russia at the time.

Notwithstanding the privileged backgrounds of the vast majority of students in Britain, there remained scope for politicisation and radicalisation to take place. There was a hint of this during the 1930s and in response to the rise of fascism. Students at Oxford University famously voted to ‘refuse to fight for king and country’ in a 1933 Oxford Union debate. This example signified a more generalised shift.

This was not reflected within NUS, however. In the run-up to the war, it continued to act mainly as a travel service, although it began to take an interest in student welfare more generally. These core concerns for exclusively student welfare remained the focus of NUS’s work right up to the 1960s.

The post-war period saw a big expansion of higher education. The class composition of students was altered, although this did not bring the immediate radicalisation of students, and the majority were still drawn from the middle classes. The period was one of economic upswing, during which a university degree amounted to a guarantee of a secure professional job. This contributed to the relatively indifferent role which students played in the struggle at that time.

The situation began to change in the 1960s, against the background of a big upturn in workers’ strikes, trade union activity and huge international struggles, such as the American civil rights movement. A radicalisation was taking place among students, particularly centred on opposition to the Vietnam war.

Student politics is often pulled towards the class that is ascendant in society at any given time. During this period, students began to identify instinctively with the workers’ movement. A big leftward shift in their political outlook was taking place. The idea of student unions as organisations of struggle, with the mass democratic participation of their members, had taken hold. Student direct action began to take place regularly, including occupations and sit-ins. More and more unions began to pass no-confidence motions in the NUS leadership. Pressure was growing for the national union – still shackled by its commitment to ignore the wider political questions and a stale bureaucratic leadership – for a radical change in direction.

An organised opposition

Various alliances of more militant students began to emerge – and often fall apart again. A first breakthrough for the left in NUS came when the 1965 Margate Council rejected the leadership’s recommendation for continued membership of the ISC, which was not only anti-communist, but was CIA financed. This defeat infuriated the then leadership of NUS, but it was unable to see it overturned. The right wing, organising to try and reverse this decision, acted as a spur to the opposition getting organised themselves.

In 1967, the Radical Students Alliance (RSA) was formed. This was, in reality, a kind of popular front, made up of a coalition of the Communist Party (CP), the Liberals and Labour. This alliance had some initial success, mainly because it gave an organised expression to the (until then) inchoate opposition to NUS’s leadership. Like all popular fronts, its lowest common denominator politics meant it was bound to fracture at some point.

As the dramatic events of 1968 unfolded internationally, and students in Britain moved to organise, the heavy bureaucracy of NUS was left behind. The RSA, which only really existed within NUS, was unable to capture the mood of the time and lead broad struggles among students. Nevertheless, as some within the RSA abandoned consistent work within the NUS, the CP began to consolidate a foothold in the official structure. This remained only a faint representation of what had taken place in society. But it provided a vehicle for a shift left in NUS, and saw Jack Straw (!) elected as president, calling for an end to the ‘no politics’ clause.

RSA folded as its leaders settled down into their officer positions and executive seats. Informal alliances of CP members and others then predominated for a number of years but, as broad, ‘left consensus’ began to evaporate, the CP lost the presidency of NUS. An attempt at regroupment was made by the CP. This became known as the Broad Left. Its most important initial success was to secure support from Labour Students – something achieved in part by sending CP members into Labour Students to agitate for this outcome. This allowed the CP to consolidate its position in NUS for several more years. The Broad Left gained the leadership of NUS on the back of a wave of student activity for a better grant and in defence of student union autonomy.

When the Labour government of 1974 was elected it quickly moved to implement counter-reform. The Broad Left leadership took the road of accommodating its poli-tics to this, and alienating student activists. Despite the Broad Left being elected on the back of a movement for student union autonomy, it went on to accept a direct attack on autonomy as it came from a Labour government.

Campaign for accountability

During this time supporters of the Militant (the Socialist Party’s predecessor) were beginning to gain real ground, and were playing an active and often leading role in the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS). The leaders of the Broad Left were determined to prevent the development of this Marxist current from taking hold and becoming established – anxious to insulate themselves from being held accountable by ordinary students. They were right to worry. When, in 1974, Marxists temporarily gained the leadership of NOLS, they were able to take the organisation out of the Broad Left. Militant’s successful intervention into NOLS, based on a Marxist programme and a transitional approach, was winning support.

The success of Militant provoked the right wing, including many hard-line Stalinist ex-CP members, to organise into the grouping, Clause Four (named, ironically, after the socialist clause in Labour’s constitution), aimed at attacking Militant’s influence within the student movement. It was through bureaucratic methods and manoeuvres that the Marxist majority in NOLS was overturned at the 1976 conference. Clause Four was thus able to capture the leadership of NOLS.

A lull in the labour movement took place from 1975-77. This was reflected in the student movement and, as the active base of the Broad Left started to fall away, the grouping was dissolved and the Left Alliance launched (with the then CP member David Aaronovitch elected as NUS president).

A big upturn in student struggle began to take place from 1981. The attempts of the Tory government to dismantle education were met with huge demonstrations and occupations, involving tens of thousands of students. This reflected broader processes at work within society, including a rapidly growing working-class opposition to the Tory government’s brutal policies. This upturn in student struggle, along with pressure from Militant within NOLS, helped force the Labour Students leaders to break with the Left Alliance. The elections of 1982 dealt a crushing blow to the Left Alliance and ended years of CP domination of NUS. It had paid the price for its failed popular front politics, of unprincipled electoral alliances, opportunism and a refusal to properly link the student movement and NUS to the organised workers’ movement.

Linking students with workers’ struggle

NOLS’s new dominance within NUS was quickly put to the test as the fight against the Tories intensified and reached a climax with the 1984-85 miners’ strike. This bitterly fought struggle made crystal clear the dividing lines within British society, and posed the question, whose side are you on? Like the leadership of the TUC – whose failure to organise solidarity action with the miners led, ultimately, to the defeat of the dispute – the NOLS leaders of NUS failed to match fiery rhetoric with concrete action. This fundamental failure left NUS tailing behind the student movement.

As the miners’ strike precipitated a shift left among students, protests and demonstrations against attacks on education took place on a much larger scale than expected by NUS’s leaders. These were left to take place in isolation from the workers’ movement and were thus unable to be fully effective. Worse still, as students instinctively moved to provide concrete support and solidarity with the miners, the leadership of NUS chose to actively discourage this. In one briefing, Neil Stewart, the then NOLS president of NUS, wrote to students warning them not to attend picket lines unless they had been given a ‘specific invite’. By contrast, supporters of Militant encouraged students to throw themselves into support for the miners, and continued to advocate NUS affiliation to the TUC and the Labour Party, with the aim of cementing the link between students and the workers’ movement.

The debates and battles that took place within NOLS and NUS mirrored – and, in some cases, were precursors to – debates within the Labour Party and the trade union movement. The use of bureaucratic manoeuvres and witch-hunting tactics to try and prevent supporters of Militant from forming the leadership of NOLS – and, potentially, the student movement by extension – preceded the purges that would take place in the Labour Party as part of the ruling class’s project to make it safe for capitalism.

While the debates within the student movement are not usually decisive in the same way as they can be within the workers’ movement, it would be a mistake to write these battles off as irrelevant, or to deny that their outcome can be a factor in history. Students are not themselves a distinct class but are composed of, and reflect the pressures of, various classes within society. As such, the debates that take place within the NUS and the student movement can be a reflection of the big battles taking place, or set to take place, within society as a whole.

Earth-shattering events

The NOLS leaders continued along a rightward trajectory over subsequent years. The witch-hunt against Militant, led by Labour leader Neil Kinnock, was getting well underway. In 1985 he made his infamous attack on Liverpool city council at the Labour Party conference. In the run-up to the 1987 general election, the NOLS leaders refused to organise real action, supposedly not wishing to harm Labour’s election prospects. This same argument is likely to be a theme at 2014’s NUS conference nearly 20 years on. But earth-shattering events of huge international significance were about to take place.

The collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracies in Russia, central and eastern Europe in 1989 precipitated a period of capitalist triumphalism and caused huge ideological confusion and disorientation within the workers’ movement. As Labour’s conversion into a purely capitalist party took place, there was a qualitative shift right, both in NOLS and in student politics generally. The ideological counter-revolution that was taking place had a big impact, not only in terms of reducing confidence to fight, but also in ushering in a new, supposedly unchallengeable neoliberal orthodoxy.

Within academia and among the intelligentsia, the idea of a ‘new paradigm’ and ‘the end of history’ started to be taken as ‘a given’. It was inevitable that this big ideological shift rightwards would be reflected in the student movement. Many student unions started to undergo a gradual process of de-politicisation. Democratic structures began to be eroded. More and more unions began to focus on their commercial activities, bars and nightclubs.

Following the victory of New Labour in 1997, Tony Blair’s government quickly moved to break its promise not to introduce tuition fees. This move to abolish free education was a brutal betrayal and created huge anger among students and a willingness to fight. Demonstrations called by NUS, under pressure from below, received large turnouts, but the leadership failed to offer any real strategy for the movement. Significantly, it refused to put its weight behind the non-payment strategy called for by socialists. It was left to Socialist Party members and student activists as part of the Save Free Education campaign to organise non-payers. The failure of NUS to get behind this strategy played a big part in the eventual defeat of this movement.

Nevertheless, a bigger movement was just around the corner. Young people were to the fore in the fight against bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Again, though many thousands of students became active and were being politicised, NUS played little to no role in organising students to take part in it. Even so, both this movement and fury at the government’s plans to introduce top-up fees found some expression within the official structure. In 2004, a left candidate, Kat Fletcher, was able to defeat Labour Students for NUS president by two votes, the first such defeat they had suffered in 20 years. Unfortunately, this brief victory for the left was not consolidated, and Kat Fletcher herself ended up proposing attacks on NUS democracy under the pretext of reducing the union’s then financial deficit.

The need for a lead

Since then, Labour Students, or close allies of theirs, have continued to hold the presidency and main leadership positions within NUS. During this time they have carried out a series of governance reforms which have eroded democracy within the union. Following the election of the Con-Dem government and its unprecedented assault on higher and further education, NUS has not only failed to organise a fight, it has actively sold students down the river.

The movement of 2010 began with a demonstration called by NUS. This 50,000-strong demonstration culminated in the occupation of Tory headquarters. At this, NUS leaders took fright. Aaron Porter, NUS president, went on television to condemn student protesters. NUS subsequently failed to organise any further action. Instead, a coalition of anti-cuts activists, including Socialist Students, was responsible for the organisation of continued action.

This movement marked the first blows dealt against the Con-Dem government. But its defeat was a setback, and left many students looking for answers as to how such a movement could win. As workers moved into struggle in 2011, with major demonstrations and strikes, the idea of uniting with workers to fight back started to gain ground among students. These shifts were only very faintly echoed within the structures of NUS, however. The small number of actual students (as opposed to sabbatical officers) now able to attend NUS conference, combined with other bureaucratic barriers, has contributed to this.

The ‘block at the top’ in the trade union movement has also complicated matters. Among students there is a willingness to fight. Increasingly, there is instinctive support given to the workers’ movement, and yet there remains no clear idea of how the government could be defeated. During 2010, the notion of ‘student power’, first prominent in the 1960s, underwent a temporary revival. But the strikes and struggles of 2011, where the potential power of the working class was powerfully displayed, largely pushed this notion aside. Nevertheless, there will be potential for this idea to re-emerge, particularly if there is no breakthrough from the workers’ movement, and if students and young people, rightly impatient to end the brutality of austerity, look for short-cuts.

There have been some small gains for the left in NUS over the last few years. An example of this was the victory of Socialist Students member Edmund Schluessel, elected to the NEC last year. Socialist Students has used this position to give a national platform for socialist ideas in the student field – and Edmund was able to help secure official support for the university workers’ strikes. We are defending the position at this year’s NUS conference.

Fighting the latest attacks

Any breakthrough for socialists in NUS, however, should not be a cause to retreat into the bureaucracy and fail to organise outside it. Often, a false dichotomy is drawn up between attempting to change NUS and building independently of it. It is correct for socialists to put pressure on the leadership of NUS to do its job, and organise a fight-back. For example, during the ‘Cops Off Campus’ protests at the end of last year, Socialist Students raised the demand for NUS to call a national demonstration in defence of the right to protest. But we also argued that students could not afford to wait for NUS before taking action, and so called for protests to be organised by anti-cuts activists and left-led student unions anyway.

Now, the most pressing task is to build mass opposition against cuts, fees and privatisation. In the immediate term, a particular focus should be given to attempting to combat the government’s latest brutal attack, the privatisation of the student loan book. This means organising campaigns on every campus, and linking them together nationally.

It is possible that a campaign such as this, if it gained a mass echo, could begin to develop its own structures, and eventually be seen as a potential alternative to NUS. In fact, Britain is rare in that there is only one student association. But should such a strong alternative be built, there would remain potential for a campaign like it to use its authority to win the leadership of NUS. After all, despite the bureaucratisation that has taken place, there still remains enough democracy for socialists to be elected to the executive, and to challenge the leadership.

For Marxists in the student movement today, the tasks are two-fold. On the one hand, to point a clear way forward in the struggle against cuts, fees and privatisation. On the other, to engage in the battle for ideas taking place both on the campuses and within national structures like NUS. The ‘new paradigm’, supposedly ushered in by the collapse of Stalinism just over 20 years ago, has been proved utterly false by the current, historic crisis of capitalism and the mass movements it has precipitated. Among students, there is a renewed openness to socialist ideas. It is the job of Marxists to provide an answer to the question, ‘what is the alternative?’ And to work to re-establish the ideas of socialism among a new and fresh generation.

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