At a recent higher education cuts conference, attended by sabbaticals and student activists from across the country, the National Union of Students was mandated to call a national demonstration against cuts and fees.
That conference, held in Birmingham on 26 June, was dogged by controversy at the offset, when very many students were denied or cancelled places because “only two delegates per university” were allowed. The conference was initially advertised as “open to all”.
NUS bureaucracy had clearly cottoned on that the student left were planning to attend and they wanted to nip that in the bud. Even Middlesex Save Philosophy campaign was turned away.
An open letter (signed by sabbatical student union officers and students from far and wide) was organised by the SWP and NUS National Executive member-elect Mark Bergfeld condemning the NUS’ actions.
On the day uninvited students who were there to protest were admitted into the conference.
Unity was the first note of the day. Aaron Porter, President-elect, in a welcoming speech said, “we have to put our differences to one side” and “the previous culture of trot-baiting inside the NUS has to stop”.
Genuine words or empty rhetoric? Most likely the latter.
When the opening session swung into gear, rather shockingly but all the same expectedly, the emphasis was put onto “where we should accept cuts”. A defeatist, pretty patronising and completely compromising stance.
One woman used an acute analogy. She said: “Why are we even talking about where to accept cuts? If you know you’re about to be punched, you don’t consider where to take it, where it will hurt less, you punch back!” This was received with applause but nevertheless quickly swept over by NUS officials on the top table.
The event included a few meaningless workshops, including “coping with cuts”, laid on in a very haphazard way it seemed. Yet this was preceded by an insightful presentation from Liverpool Guild Students’ Union who fought a successful anti-cuts campaign, to save their politics, communications and philosophy departments, among others.
At least this provided some ideas and impetus on orchestrating anti-cuts campaigns to the new faces within the room.
The final panel debate, which heard from a UCU representative, a university management member from Salford University, and Aaron Porter, was supposed to to relay “all perspectives” on the cuts. In reality it was nothing of the sort! However, the UCU rep did hit the room with chilling stats including the volume of staff we’re likely to lose through these cuts — four to five universities’ worth.
The one success for the left, who’ve been pushing NUS on this matter, was the announcement that there will be a national demonstration in conjunction with other education unions in November. The exact date has yet to be finalised.
Student actives now have to use that demonstration as a focus to build for. But first we need to build up the campaign in each and every college. A series of actions and local demonstrations. Joint events with unions. Strike support work. Making links with further education colleges. Taking the arguments out to working class people in towns and cities.