Reprinted from Education Not for Sale. This is posted for information and does not necessarily reflect the position/perspective of everyone involved with NCAFC.
By Daniel Randall, NUS Trustee Board, and Chris Marks, Hull University VP Education, NCAFC northern co-convenor and candidate for NUS President
This year’s NUS conference (13-15 April, in Newcastle, the first not to take place in Blackpool for decades) meets against the background of huge cuts to higher education – some of the first New Labour’s cuts to really bite. We have seen the development of anti-cuts groups on many campuses and big struggles at a series of institutions, notably Tower Hamlets, London Met, Leeds, Westminster and Sussex. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has linked up and organised student activists in a fight back across the country.
Unfortunately, very little of this will be reflected at the conference. With the new, anti-democratic structure pushed through last year and the recent dramatic cut in delegation sizes, the conference will be more dominated by friends of the leadership among conservative sabbaticals than ever.
Even before these changes, 75 percent of motions at NUS conference were fluff – bland management speak churned out by supporters of the leadership, with right-wing policies hidden away in the detail. This year, with fewer unions submitting policy than ever before, 90 percent is fluff.
The “collaborations agenda”: try to stay awake, this is important
Hidden away in the ‘AGM’ section of the agenda in amendment 701d, from the NEC, is a resolution to “progress the ‘collaborations agenda’ and ‘wave of change agenda’ as per the NEC report addendum”. The report refers to the plans being developed by the NUS leadership to merge the national union with NUSSL (NUS’s commercial services arm) and AMSU (the ‘union’ for senior managers in student unions!!), creating what will in effect be a giant service-providing charity with a very small campaigning arm.
This change is designed to lock down the impossibility of student activists influencing NUS’s direction, let alone using it as an organising centre in the upcoming battles against cuts and fees. It will lay down further institutional barriers against creating the kind of campaigning national union we need. It’s crucial that delegates oppose the NEC amendment and vote 701e (Cambridge University) and 701f (City University), which not only oppose the “collaborations agenda” but propose genuine democratic changes to NUS’s structures.
The fight against cuts and fees
“Any cuts to higher education finance must be carefully thought through, and not come at the expense of students”. So says leadership-supported ‘policy recommendation’ 301, which also accepts tuition fees in principle and says nothing about the need for a living student grant.
In other words, as students across the country move into battle against cuts and fees, NUS has given up in advance. You can be sure the cuts they are “thinking through” are not cuts to VCs’ pay or highly paid managers, but to the jobs, rights and education of students and workers in the HE sector.
301b are 301c are left-wing amendments, supporting free education, universal grants and a serious fight back against cuts. Unfortunately, 301b argues that “In order to be successful in the global economy Britain needs a highly skilled workforce”. This is, self-evidently, not a left-wing position – “success” in the global economy means success for British capitalists, and they want a highly skilled workforce so they can exploit us more effectively. We should seek to remove this nonsense (on the origins of which, see below).
In the FE zone, Sandwell College has proposed Education Not for Sale text arguing for FE and sixth form students not living at home to receive a living grant, equal to that for HE students, of £150 a week (205a). The leadership are opposing this – of course.
Solidarity with workers in struggle
311a rightly argues that “industrial action is… the best way to defend jobs and conditions in the face of aggressive management” and resolves “to support industrial action taken by UCU and our other partner unions in defence of jobs and education, and to urge our Constituent Members to do the same”. The leadership, which likes to pretend to be pro-trade union, has not dared oppose this, but no doubt some stone age right-wing sabbatical will get up to oppose it from the floor.
311b rightly opposes management trying to play off students and workers against each other, but is agnostic on supporting industrial action. 311c similarly focuses on minimising industrial action’s impact on students. This is not adequate.
Workers and students should not pay for the bosses’ crisis! Vote for 311a! NUS should give a clear lead in supporting lecturers and education workers in struggle.
NUS and student union democracy
Delegates should obviously vote for 701 and 701a in the AGM section, which opposes the dramatic cuts to conference delegation sizes which have been pushed through this year. These cuts are designed to make it harder than ever for student activists to reach conference, let alone exert some control over the direction of NUS.
Amendment 503c notes the link between moves away “from democratic procedures such as general meetings that involve active participation” and “a vision of unions as bodies that act on behalf of a passive membership, rather than as vehicles for collective action”. “It is the latter that is needed if we are to build a student movement capable of fighting the education cuts”. It opposes NUS’s SU Evaluation Initiative as a tool to encourage bureaucratisation and depoliticisation in our unions.
Whether or not this is passed, the NUS leadership and the majority of sabbaticals will not want to act on it. This is a fight that every anti-cuts, free education and left student activist must take up in the new term.
There are a number of important motions on international solidarity in the Society and Citizenship Zone. We would give particular mention to ordinary motion 414, which supports Batay Ouvriye, the radical union organising workers in Haiti’s sweatshops and free trade zones, and which has appealed for funds to help it rebuild after the devastation of January’s earthquake.
SWP member Mark Bergfeld is standing for Vice-President Higher Education (and Block of 15) and SWP sympathiser Assed Baig is standing for VP Society and Citizenship. As socialists and grassroots activists, they deserve support. Black Students’ Officer Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy is standing for President and LGBT Officer Daf Adley for VP Union Development; both are essentially leftish liberals – as evidenced by the nonsense they have been involved in promoting about scrapping fees being good “for the economy”. This is the central theme of their fake ‘Free Education Campaign’, which organises no activity and whose website has been updated once since September last year. Nikita Joshi also seems to be a liberal – she is supporting a Lib Dem candidate in Harrow in the general election and in her NUS debate shows no particular sign of being left-wing.
Fiona Edwards, the supposedly ‘left’ candidate for VP Welfare, is a member of the Stalinist Student Respect/Socialist Action group, with no record of grassroots activism and a bad record as a sabbatical, including undermining the Sheffield University occupation over the invasion of Gaza.
Chris Marks is standing for President on a clear class-struggle, socialist, anti-cuts platform. (Facebook group is here.) Serious left delegates, in fact everyone who supports a mass fight back against fees and cuts, should vote Chris Marks #1 and transfer to Bell Ribeiro-Addy to stop the right-wing candidate Aaron Porter.
Chris is also standing for the Block of 15.
(For what the different candidates actually stand for, listen to the debates recorded by NUS here.)
What you can do
1. If you are a delegate or observer and want to help ENS or the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts at conference, get in touch by emailing us, with your phone number, at firstname.lastname@example.org
2. The NCAFC will be holding regular caucuses at the ENS stall in the Sage conference centre where NUS conference is taking place. Come and listen to what we have to say, take our materials and get involved.
3. We are sponsoring a joint fringe meeting on “How do we fight cuts and fees?” with Newcastle Free Education Network on the evening of Wednesday 14 April – 8.30pm at Central Hotel in Gateshead. Details on the Facebook event here. Come along and bring other delegates!
4. Vote for Chris Marks for President and Block of 15, and for other socialist candidates.
5. To find us at the conference ring Chris 07931 108 618 or Daniel on 07961 040 618.