A number of socialists, including supporters of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, have recently been elected as full-time student union sabbatical officers. Ashok Kumar is a non-aligned leftist, NCAFC supporter, and Vice-President Education-elect at the London School of Economics Students’ Union.
What’s your political background/previous involvement?
I was born and raised in a Marxist household in Chicago, a city with a rich history of social and political resistance. I was the US equivalent of academic affairs sabbatical officer at the University of Wisconsin where we fought alongside workers against cuts and fee hikes. After that I worked at organising to pass laws expanding workers’, immigrants' and gay rights and fighting against racism in the criminal justice system.
What’s the political culture like at LSE?
The LSE student union is rooted in a proud tradition of radicalism and commitment to participatory democracy. It is the only students’ union in UK to have weekly Union General Meetings, which has remained a politicising, radicalising, and consciousness-building exercise for students from the beginning.
Well into the 80s the LSE students’ union banner remained “Arm the Workers and Students — Education is a Right not a Privilege”, and the union “president” title was changed to “general secretary” in solidarity with striking miners.
LSE has continued to remain active in recent years, particularly around Palestine solidarity.
Sadly, the current sabbatical officers chose to spend the 2009-2010 year campaigning to shift UGM floor voting to online voting under the hollow auspices of “reform” and “change”. Indeed, in a move taken straight from the New Labour playbook, the LSE constitutional amendments localised and mimicked the undemocratic NUS reforms. Almost all of the SU leadership tried to ram through the institution of external trustees via referendum, yet students resoundingly rejected this move. However the sabbaticals succeeded in ending the voting power on the UGM floor, by a total of three votes. An inside-clique of union leadership chose to ignore the requirement for 2/3 majority for constitutional amendments.
This will no doubt lead to a more bureaucratized union where discussion and grassroots student dissent will remain institutionally stifled.
How did you decide to run?
The initial motivation to run was my opposition to the reforms and the fact that all the candidates standing had campaigned to pass them. The ultimate motivation to run was to actively fight the expected avalanche of cuts and the expected lifting of the cap on fees. I come from the US where fees are so high that the last vestige of the working class has been priced out of higher education, and university debt is carried throughout a lifetime. I don’t want the UK system to become the like the US.
What was your campaign like?
Even though LSE is seeing some of the largest cuts, the university will able to absorb them since it makes about £26 million profit from overcharging its large international student body. If government decides to increase the cap on fees, or removes it all together, once the recommendations from the Brown Review come out, then LSE will no doubt institute those increases to highest point feasible. So, I ran on fighting the fees.
I didn’t run on a slate but there was an informal group of candidates with similar politics.
My primary support came from the Islamic Society, Palestine Society, and the LGBT Society. Our slogan was a “Ashok to the system”. It’s both catchy and captures the essence of our platform — putting robust union democracy and student/worker power above petty backroom deal-making for meaningless policy changes.
What do you hope to achieve next year?
We will be organising a broad-based campaign to fight any and all fee increases by demanding a five year freeze on fees for EU and international students for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. This issue is one that hits home for all students and will require organizing beyond our comfort zone of the traditional “left”..
I intend to work towards LSE and other similarly situated universities becoming a hub of solidarity for organising and resistance against the cuts across the country — a base for organising and solidarity for worker and student actions and coordination
At the NUS level I hope to work with others on the left to push our national union away from the bureaucratic, undemocratic, careerist-hack organisation it has become towards an organisation that is a “union” in the true sense of the word.
At next year’s NUS conference I will argue for a mandate that would require all the apparel produced for the over 700 affiliate unions come from factories with democratic unions. NUS spends millions of pounds a year contracted out to produce NUS’s affiliate apparel. These clothes come from sweatshop factories consisting mostly of women of colour in the global south who have struggled to resist and organise into unions. When they do succeed they find themselves locked out, orders halted and factories shut down. My proposal will no doubt come up against some resistance, so I am hoping to get support from many factions to build real global student-worker solidarity.
What are the prospects are for building a united, effective student left?
I think it is crucial to find the points of intersection to build a broad based coalition of students and workers. We have to find creative actions and ways that not only “build” quantifiably, but also build a culture of resistance, our own hegemony on campus. Many have tried, some have succeeded, but clearly this isn’t an easy task.
As the conditions worsen it will be up to us to help harness the anger into collective action. Sectarianism and petty infighting has become a running joke on the left. I am confident from what I’ve seen so far that socialists, anarchists, greens and others on the left will be able to unite around a common cause — namely the cuts.