Inside the student movement

Submitted by AWL on 12 September, 2005 - 12:36

News and views from inside the student movement...

A tale of two meetings

A lot of people don’t like meetings. That includes a lot of people on the left, who seem to think that having a meeting is somehow counter-posed to “action” or “doing things.”

It’s not unreasonable to dislike sitting around and talking for ages, and the parody of the left in which all anyone ever does is call meetings isn’t a million miles from the truth, but generally I think meetings have got an undeservedly bad rep. Meetings do not preclude “action”. Having interesting and engaging meetings are worthwhile things in themselves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with meetings per se; what makes or breaks them is their content.

The NUS National Executive Committee meeting of 22 August was definitely broken by its content or rather its abject lack of content. If you want to read a comprehensive report of the meeting, you should check out http://www.free-education.org.uk/nus.shtml, but I rather fear that that report is almost as boring as the meeting itself.

Basically, this meeting was characterised by the spinning out of issues that could have been dealt with sharply and succinctly into a four hour discussion, the arbitrary calling of a series of increasingly confusing votes which were all retaken several times, and the non-discussion of the ten-plus motions that had been tabled.

An observer would have to conclude that the apolitical bureaucrats’ grip on NUS is iron-fast.

A commitment to call a national demonstration at some point during the next academic year was the only concrete proposal to come out of a meeting that could have seen the NUS take clear stands on a whole range of political issues.

One of those issues was the industrial dispute at Gate Gourmet firm in west London. Although not a trade union, the NUS has traditionally had a positive orientation to labour movement issues, a history of supporting workers in struggle and has advocated student-worker unity. Taking a basic stand of solidarity with workers involved in a desperate strike to defend their livelihood should be second-nature to student unionists, but even this was too much as the motion — along with all the others — tumbled off the agenda.

Consequently, when I turned up at the Gate Gourmet Support Group (GGSG) meeting the following Wednesday I was pretty disappointed that I wasn’t able to inform the Gate Gourmet workers that the National Union of Students had pledged full solidarity for their struggle. But I got over that disappointment when I was reminded that not all
meetings are ineffectual, apolitical and bureaucratic.

In a meeting mostly made up of rank-and-file working-class activists, the focus of the GGSG meeting was practical, but not at the exclusion of discussion of the political perspectives. Many concrete actions were decided upon — including calling another meeting!

Of course rank-and-file trade unionists are more likely to understand the practical imperative of supporting striking workers than NUS bureaucrats, and I’m not suggesting that the NUS NEC should have spent all its time discussing Gate Gourmet to the exclusion of everything else, but the two experiences put together were very instructive on the rights and wrongs of organising meetings.

That weekend, I worked for the Workers’ Beer Company at the Leeds Festival and helped raise, along with others working at the Reading Festival, £430 in tips for the Gate Gourmet workers’ strike fund.

Talking to ordinary people at the Festival about basic working-class politics and persuading them of the importance of giving money to striking workers — usually with a lot of success — could not have been further away from the endless, circuitous and largely fruitless discussion with which the week began.

There is an urgent need to take the dynamism of activist movements — including massively inspiring working-class struggles such as that of the Gate Gourmet workers — into NUS to challenge those inside it who think that a six-hour meeting in which no motions and hardly any politics are discussed is a day well spent.

By Daniel Randall, NUS NEC (pers. cap.)

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Accountability, participation and the student movement

By Dan Katz

Six months ago I had an unnecessary and depressing experience attempting to organise an ethical fashion show at the London College of Fashion in central London.

No Sweat approached the Student Union rep at the college and we set a date for the show. As the event got nearer the rep was willing but inexperienced; her idea of building for a show had been lifted from fashion advertising (put nice posters up), not political campaigning (posters plus hard graft: talking to people, leafleting etc).

More to the point she had no student campaigning structures around her, no regular political connection with the mass of students.

The LCF is a part of a federation of colleges with a central union office, which no one goes into. Inside the SU building it seemed that nothing much worked, everything moved at a snail’s-pace. In as far as the SU had any real connection with the mass of students it was though social events, rather than any student identification with the union as a union which fights for their interests.

The week before the event the SU had sold no tickets. Not a single one.

Worse, it turned out the sabbatical responsible for booking the room space had failed to do so properly and the show was cancelled. The sabbatical was not sacked nor, as far as I know, disciplined or inconvenienced in any way for his incompetence.

The problem here seems typical of today’s student movement: the need to reconnect student union structures (still well funded and resourced in Higher Education) with the mass of the membership; the need to develop a layer of activists capable of acting as a catalyst to help that process; the need to build basic, bread-and-butter campaigns which prove to students there is a point in relating to their SU.

That is the role for Education Not for Sale (ENS)

www.free-education.org