Should student activists give up on NUS? Alternative proposals

Following the fiasco of the recent National Union of Students demo, there is discussion in the student movement about “leaving NUS”. We share the frustration and, in many cases, much of the analysis of those advocating this – namely that NUS is a bureaucratic behemoth geared to smothering student activist initiative and that this makes even more crucial the need to organise autonomously. However, we disagree with the conclusion of giving up on NUS entirely, for reasons we will explain below.

We also agree is that the student movement should not carry on with business as usual.

What would leaving NUS mean?

“Leaving NUS” could mean, among other things:

1. Advocating that student unions disaffiliate from NUS;
2. Advocating that individuals quit their student unions.

In terms of 2: a few years ago some activists advocated abandoning student unions and setting up an individual membership student union on the French model. However, this went nowhere and it does not seem to us that it would be likely to go anywhere now. We are in favour of building individual membership student activist organisations, as we will explain below, but this is not a substitute for student unions as they are currently constituted. It is worth noting that the French student unions are very weak, enrolling a small minority of students.

There has been some buzz in the British student movement about the model of Quebec, ie of the radical student federation ASSE. However, it seems to us that this model is not, at least right now, applicable in Britain. ASSE is a federation of local departmental associations, which are well-established with a long history in Quebec. We are in favour of investigating building such structures in Britain, as some activists are now doing, but if it happens on any scale it will be a long slog: again, not an immediately or even medium-term alternative to student unions.

While we support activist groups organising and, where necessary, acting autonomously from student unions, but we do not accept the argument that SUs are so bureaucratic and impermeable that they cannot be fought in and – in some cases – at least partially taken over and transformed, to work in alliance with rather than against activist groups. There are a number of recent examples of this happening to some extent (Royal Holloway, Edinburgh, UCL, Birmingham...)

What about student unions disaffiliating from NUS?

It seems to us that there are least four strong arguments against this:

a. It gives up on the fight that, despite how bureaucratic and closed off NUS’s structures are, does still exist in NUS – at its conferences, on the committees elected at those conferences etc. Some of the fights of the last two years show that pressure and victories are possible here – even if what such victories can achieve is limited.

b. Most student unions are themselves fairly bureaucratic and conservative – and removing them from coordination with other SUs would do nothing to make them more radical. SUs that have left NUS have almost universally done so for right-wing, not left-wing reasons – Glasgow, Imperial, Buckingham. In any case, being affiliated to NUS does not limit what an SU can do.

c. That where there are more radical SUs with a strong left influence, they tend – sadly – to be in the posher universities. The idea of cutting these unions of from SUs at other institutions with a more working-class and diverse student population is not good.

d. Disaffiliation would also mean cutting unions off from the bits of NUS that do sometimes take a more radical stance, eg the Liberation Campaigns – and cutting off their members from access to and involvement in these campaigns.

In that case, what needs to be done?

We would advocate the student activist left shifts gear, so to speak, on three levels:

1. Build the NCAFC as a properly organised activist coalition

There has been criticism from some activists that the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is too “hierarchical”. We think that that in so far as this is true, it is because the NCAFC has too little “hierarchy”, ie democratic structure (despite being the only democratic national “broad left” activist network). Structures alone cannot guarantee a vibrant, democratic internal life or mass involvement. Nor can they guarantee effective campaigns: what is essential to that is political demands/program. But we think the NCAFC would be much more inclusive, democratic and effective if converted into an organisation with individual membership and a formal system of affiliations by local activist groups, SUs etc.

Even with a less solid structure, the NCAFC has been able to play an important role, at some points achieving more than NUS. With a better, more accessible, more democratic structure, it could achieve more.

To those who think this is in some sense sinister, we would point out that ASSE has a highly developed structure of delegates, conferences, committees etc.

2. Step up the fight in NUS

Compared to about a dozen years ago, when the left came close to winning NUS President, or twenty five years ago, when it was a mass opposition inside the national union, the left has fallen back in NUS. Far from abandoning this fight, we should step up our act, with many more motions to NUS proposed to student unions, left-wingers standing to be conference delegates, a proper campaign in the run up to NUS conference and so on.

One crucial aspect of that is unity: there has not been a genuine united left slate for the leadership positions on NUS executive for years now. This is because particular left groups (SWP, Socialist Action) have been in a position to dominate such challenges, excluding factional adversaries and often foisting weak candidates on the left. That is no longer the case: hopefully we will be able to get a united left challenge at NUS conference this year.

The “new” part of what we are arguing for is:

3. Student unions dissatisfied with NUS should link up independently of it

What does that mean?

We are against SUs disaffiliating from NUS, for the reasons set out above. But there is nothing to stop student unions that want the fight that NUS is not giving from linking up in an alternative structure (a more democratic structure than NUS's, and with more radical demands and activity).

We mean something more formal and representative than an activist coalition like NCAFC – even if NCAFC had formal affiliations. We mean a collective body of SUs, funded by its affiliates, with a conference and committees, an office, (a small number of) staff etc.

A similar idea will be discussed at the upcoming NCAFC conference (on 8-9 December) under the title "Federation of Fighting Student Unions". We think the details and how to proceed need a lot more discussion, but the fact that this sort of idea is starting to be considered more widely is good.

In 2007-8, when the NUS leadership launched a fresh wave of attacks on NUS democracy, Workers’ Liberty Students advocated something similar to this – also, very briefly, advocating that SUs also disaffiliate from NUS. We think we were probably wrong on the latter – but not on the former.

In 2008, there was no SU willing to take such an initiative. That problem might also exist now. But, as described above, there are more left-influenced/controlled SUs than there were then, so greater scope for this to happen.

If we had, say, a hundred SUs willing to join together in this way, then you could make a strong case for them leaving NUS. But in reality we would probably be talking about five or six, at least to start with – though that number would hopefully grow as the new federation proved its worth.

Staying in NUS would allow them to continue the fight there – and in fact coordinating formally together could help in that struggle.

And the demand for affiliation to the new federation would be something that activists at other universities could argue and fight for in their unions too.

We would like to spark debate about this idea among student activists and student unionists.

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