The role of the National Union of Students in the recent upsurge of student struggles has been, to coin a phrase, "despicable". This was the word NUS president Aaron Porter chose to describe the direct-action protests at Millbank, conducted by a substantial radical minority of participants on the NUS/UCU demonstration on November 10.
But NUS's recent actions have exposed the true nature of what NUS has become; a conservative, thoroughly-bureaucratised organisation that can now only act as a brake on its members' struggles. After his comments on the 10th, Porter was eventually pressured into a grovelling show of support for the UCL occupation, only to renege on the promises of legal and political aid he made there. Now, the NUS NEC has refused to back the NCAFC/EAN action on Thursday 9 (the day of the parliamentary vote on fees on "legal and financial" grounds.
Part of the problem here is that year of structural reform have left NUS's membership (which automatically includes anyone registered on a course at an institution whose student union is affiliated to NUS) all-but incapable of exerting any pressure, never mind direct control, on what NUS does politically at a national level. Unelected, highly-paid managerial staff handle much of NUS's day-to-day running and a semi-elected "Trustee Board" (peopled with high-level bureaucrats and bosses from various sectors) has an ultimate power over what the union does. NUS's new "corporate governance" structure has qualitatively changed the nature of the organisation, merging NUS with its own commercial services arm (NUSSL) and the professional association of student union managers (AMSU), to form a large commercial charity of which the "old" NUS is now effectively the campaigning arm. These changes have fed, and been fed by, a growing culture of anti-political conservatism that has seen NUS lurch increasingly rightwards in policy terms. Its position on education funding is, in current context, a call to defend the status quo; it wants to tinker around the edges of the payment system but accepts as inevitable (desirable, even) the idea of education as a paid-for commodity. Its leaders denounce free education activists as utopian fantasists.
Why not simply ignore it, then? Why not call on affiliated SUs to simply abandon NUS and form a new, radical federation of student unions based on democracy, member-leadership and free-education politics? This is indeed a worthy aim, but the road to that aim lies through the existing NUS - not around it. It is not a question of the most radical SUs wandering off one-by-one, but conducting a concerted fighting within the existing structures, which could either force substantial changes or generate the momentum and confidence for a sizeable new formation to emerge. We cannot build a revolutionary student movement from scratch; we can, however, attempt to revolutionise the existing one. Description by analogy will only take us so far here, but we can look to historical examples such as the formation of the CIO in America for lessons on how new, radical formations can begin life as caucuses with the old bureaucratic structures.
With that goal in mind, socialists in the student movement should push for the maximum possible fight within NUS. This means:
* agitating for local SUs to demand an emergency NUS conference
* proposing policy for NUS conference 2011 that seeks to overturn its position on education funding and to abolition the existing undemocratic constitution and replace it with one based on a grassroots control
* standing a united left slate for the NUS NEC, in the first place based on the unity of activist networks such as the NCAFC and EAN.
* Activist-led SUs calling, or sponsoring, a broad conference aimed at forming a permanent caucus of left SUs that can organise within NUS and, when and where necessary, independently of it.
This is not about attempting to "reclaim" NUS. It was never ours to begin with. It is about using every channel available to make the case for a different kind of student movement. NUS remains the only national representative organisation that brings together any significant number of students in a single (even minimally accessible) structure; to fail to take up the opportunity to kick over some tables there would amount to political abstention.