Campus battles and NUS conference 2014

Submitted by AWL on 1 April, 2014 - 3:25

For a report of the conference published on 11 April, see here.

The weakness of the labour movement after the defeat of the public sector pensions dispute has had its effect in the student movement too.

Student activism is stronger than before the student upsurge of 2010-11, but still sluggish. Nonetheless, the National Union of Students conference (8-10 April, Liverpool) comes after six months which have seen important struggles.

These struggles have been focused around two main issues: workers' rights on campus and repression against student activists.

The two are connected, because the relatively big movement for “cops off campus” at the end of last year was sparked by management and police repression against student solidarity actions with campus workers. The biggest flashpoint was University of London, the site of the very important Tres Cosas campaign by outsourced cleaning and maintenance workers, and of heavy repression against student protests supporting it. The other two universities to suffer the worst repression, Birmingham and Sussex, have also seen student action in support of workers' struggles.

More and more campaigns uniting students with workers on their campuses (often Living Wage campaigns) have been appearing, all over the country, although still at a relatively low level.

NUS is heavily bureaucratised and politically Blairite. But these kind of battles will find some expression at its conference because of the intervention of the left-wing network National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), which includes AWL students.

NCAFC-sympathetic student unions have proposed a raft of policy to the conference on these issues, including spreading the example of campaigns like Tres Cosas, support for the upcoming lecturers' marking boycott, the demand for a maximum pay ratio in education, and the demand for police not to be allowed on campus without permission from the student union. They have also submitted motions on NUS's demands and strategy over education funding, cuts, student housing, jobs and rights at work, student union democracy, anti-racism, the NHS and the general election.

As well as contributing to these proposals, Workers' Liberty students have successfully pushed for the submission of more “political” motions on issues including expropriating the banks, Ukraine, commemorating the miners' strike – and Europe. The last is particular important in a year when, slightly shockingly but perhaps not surprisingly, UKIP are standing a candidate for NUS President. Our motion seeks to commit NUS to a serious fight against nationalism and anti-migrant bigotry, and against UKIP in particular.

The NCAFC will hold fringe events and produce a daily bulletin. It is also standing candidates for NUS's national executive council, both for the full-time officer positions - including AWL member Daniel Cooper for President - and for the part-time “Block of 15”.

At present there are four NCAFC supporters on the NUS executive. Autonomous conferences taking place before the main NUS conference have already re-elected one of them and elected two new ones, so that number should grow.

In the year running up to the general election, with the Tories refusing to rule out higher fees and Labour currently putting forward no clear policy, NUS's lack of political radicalism and drive could be disastrous. The consolidation of an effective, confrontational left-wing bloc inside NUS is important. Straight away, such a bloc can help boost student support for workers' struggles like the marking boycott, Living Wage campaigns and Tres Cosas.

For more on what's happening at NUS conference see the NCAFC website here.

Left candidate for President

Daniel Cooper is a member of Workers' Liberty's student committee, Vice President of University of London Union and the left's candidate for NUS President. He told Solidarity:

“NUS has had little if anything to do with the most dynamic, exciting student struggles of the last year. As mounting repression is used to help impose marketisation on our education system, it has stood aside. It is sleep-walking into the year of a General Election, with big threats and opportunities for the student movement.

“I think NCAFC's campaign has given a political expression to grassroots student struggles, and raised the possibility of a national perspective for the student movement radically different from the timidity, management speak and bureaucracy of NUS as it currently exists. I hope it will succeed in consolidating a stronger left inside NUS, linked to grassroots activists and struggles. We need to use the conference as a launch pad to get the student left better organised, more united, more active and more political.”

For more on Daniel's campaign, see here.

Birmingham: justice on our side

The 13 students who were arrested at the national demonstration in Birmingham on the January 29 have had their criminal investigations discontinued, and the remaining 2 out of 5 students who were suspended as a result have been reinstated.

The win came at the end of an eight week long battle with university management, who have unsuccessfully tried to bully a minority of students into silence and out of activism and political engagement on campus. On the 20th February, management reinstated 3 of the 5, after an open letter condemning the university's actions was signed by 5700 people, including Claire Short and Noam Chomsky.

The remaining two students still had no access to their personal tutors, seminars, lectures, welfare and counselling services, and were not able to hand in any academic work, and the Student Loans Company was demanding money from them due to their studies being “interrupted”. A demo was called for Wednesday 26 March, and people from Edinburgh, Liverpool and London came together in Birmingham to help build for the demonstration. An open letter was published the same week, signed by 228 staff members and academics at Birmingham University and delivered to the Vice Chancellor.

The day before the demo, the 2 suspended students were informed that as of that day, they were going to be allowed to continue their studies and were allowed back onto their campus. Despite being initially unsupportive, the Guild of students backed the demonstration, as did UCU, and it went ahead with speakers from trade unions, the NUS and academics from the university.

One of the final two suspended students, Kelly Rogers, spoke about why she thought their campaign was successful. "The campaign brought out people from every corner: students - from Birmingham and around the country, academics, support staff, MPs, members of the public. It was a broad campaign centred on the basic principle of innocent until proven guilty and justice. That's why it won - because ultimately, it's completely untenable for universities and the police to continue singling out and punishing students before trial. The support was appreciated more than I can say, and I think we have shown that when students do get singled out, there is a national network to support and defend them."

Spanish students strike against cuts
By Rachael Barnes

Students from universities all over Spain went on a 48-hour strike last Wednesday, called by the national Students' Union, to express disdain at cuts being made to education spending, to demand the resignation of Jose Ignacio Wert, the Minister of Education who has introduced the education reforms, and to protest against new restrictions on access to grants for both living costs and tuition fees. In order to get a grant, students must obtain a certain grade in their entrance exams.

The funding cuts and grant restrictions are an attempt at stabilising Spain's public finances, and have come at a time where unemployment has risen to 26%, and it is reported that 2 million young Spanish people have had to leave university because they could no longer afford to study. Thousands of people have come together in Madrid since March 22 to protest against poverty and EU-imposed austerity.

On the first day of the strike, protesters at the Complutense University in Madrid, set fire to bins and used them to build barricades to block traffic on the main road through the university. An occupation of a student services building had been ongoing for several days previous, and at the request of the university was emptied by around 100 police officers due to the “deterioration of the conditions in terms of safety and hygiene”. 53 people had been arrested by the end of the first day.

Around 150 students built barricades on the second day of the strike while many others marched, but all police vans had left Complutense University's campus in the morning. This was one of a reported 70 protests nationwide, where university students, school students, workers and parents came together to march against the centre-right government's dismantling of their respective sectors.