Fight for free education!

Submitted by martin on 20 March, 2007 - 2:30

By Rosie Woods, Left Unity supporter and recently elected member of the National Executive of the National Union of Students

I’ve been to the conference of the National Union of Students’ — held every Easter — twice before. This is the only time of the year when students — some 1,500 delegated from their colleges — have a chance to get together to discuss and vote on issues relevant to them. I hoped campaigning on student financial support would be top of the agenda. The appalling level of student poverty certainly means it deserves to be. However, this was not to be…
Labour Students dominates the leadership of NUS and consequently can do a lot to set the tone and agenda of conference. It never ceases to amaze me just how right-wing, passive, and elitist they are!
Before conference started, delegates who had motions to propose were invited to compositing meetings (a process where motions are put together to make them shorter and the amendments are organised in a logical order). It can be an opportunity for political factions to stitch each other up. And so during compositing the SWP and Labour Students did deals with each other to stop a Left Unity motion on free education, calling for NUS to commit itself to decent grants for all students over 16 being prioritised. This motion was pushed down the running order.
One of the features of NUS conference, like many trade union conferences I’m sure, is that a lot of time is spent discussing and voting on “bureaucratic” motions. Very often delegates get bored and disappear to the cafe or bar while this is going on. But it is always an opportunity for the right-wing to slip something anti-democratic in. We were asked to vote on two motions that did precisely this.
First was a proposal to cut the size of conference (on the grounds of saving money). Second was a motion to abolish the Central Areas Development Fund (a means of “topping up” the affiliation money received by the local Area organisations of NUS). Both motions would have adversely affected the less developed student unions in the Further Education sector.
In fact overlooking and trying to silence further education students within NUS is a familiar story. Why? Because Labour Students has its base in the universities. Because developing and involving further education students, and working-class students, would mean Labour Students potentially losing control of NUS.
The FE sector was given just one hour of conference time in which elections to the FE National Committee were held and all motions were discussed without discussion or amendments.
Meanwhile in the FE sector, courses are being cut, colleges face bankruptcy, lecturers are being sacked, students studying part-time on the dole are being told they can study for less and less hours…
There were two items on the conference agenda which referred to ‘no confidence’ in our President Jim Murphy. Murphy is a member of Labour Students.
The no-confidence motions had arisen from anger at Murphy from many students involved in the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual Campaign and the Women’s Campaign. These campaigns are supposed to set and decide their own policies and priorities. Murphy has shown little respect for this over the last year. For instance when the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals produced a report about safety on campuses Jim Murphy, without consulting with the Women’s Officer, spoke to the press, saying NUS supported and agreed with the report. The report said that in certain cases rapes would be reported to the police, with or without the permission of the victim. Not NUS Women’s Campaign policy!
Any chance to hold Murphy to account through a no-confidence motion was lost, however, as Labour Students managed to wangle it so that it was not discussed before the election for President. And Jim Murphy was elected for another term as President!
But the main debate for me has to be on student financial support. Labour Students campaigned hard and narrowly won support for their motion calling for a “review” of student financial support. This was merely cover for their real intention — that is, to ditch the policy of decent grants for all students and free tuition and adopt some form of graduate tax or extensive loan system. This is in line with New Labour: Blair has clearly decided that a future Labour government “cannot afford” to properly fund further and higher education. Labour has completely accepted the Tories’ agenda. Murphy et al are doing Blair’s dirty work and trying to batter NUS into submitting to a two-tier, cut price, education system.
To add insult to injury the review — in the form of a questionnaire — has been conducted over the Easter holidays, i.e. where no students, except sabbatical Student Union Officers in the big universities, are there to be consulted! This consultation will be followed by a special conference of NUS in May at which only the biggest Universities — with the most right-wing delegates — will be able to easily afford to send delegates. At that conference, we predict, students will be asked to ditch NUS’s long-held, and bitterly fought for, policy in favour of free education.
It is a travesty of democracy. But also nothing could be more inimical to the real interests of students.
As a member of the Labour Party and a socialist I shall be campaigning for Labour to win the next election. But in the meantime I shall also be fighting within the Labour Party for a policy in favour of free education as a right for all. As a newly elected member of NUS National Executive I want to take up the fight in the student movement too.
There are many thousands of students — working-class students studying on the dole, mature students looking for a second chance at education, women struggling to look after children whilst studying, black students facing discrimination and oppression — who need and deserve a free education system. I will do my best to fight on their behalf, for their interests, which are, in fact, the interests of all students.

* The Campaign for Free Education can be contacted c/o NUS London, ULU, Malet St, London WC1E 7HY (0171-637 1181).

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