By Alan Clarke
This year's conference of the National Union of Students (NUS), 31 March to 3 April, takes place against a background of massive student anti-war protests. The issue of the war will certainly dominate the conference. Whether it will make it onto the agenda is another matter.
The growth of student activism inspired by the anti-war movement has yet to filter through to most student unions. The ballot of union executives which determines what is debated at NUS Conference prioritised the old favourites such as 'Welfare' and 'Student Activities', pushing 'Internationalism' off the bottom of the list. Although anti-war text has sneaked into several of the debates, there is no certainty that it will be debated, or that the conference will vote to discuss an emergency motion on Iraq.
This sense of priorities - putting vaguely defined debates about internal student union organisation before the huge international issue which has dominated students' political activity for the last six months - is typical of NUS. The Blairites (both Labour Student and 'independent') who continue to dominate the national union are not as blatant as their immediate predecessors: they talk about free education, claim to oppose the war and generally attack the Government from the left. In reality, though, they are cut from the same mould. The current generation use radical rhetoric when they're under pressure, but take the first available escape routes.
To take one particularly abject example: the NUS President (Labour) and National Secretary ('independent') described the Government's plans for top-up fees as 'a welcome step forward'; then apologised and voted for free education at the National Executive; then distributed a circular claiming that NUS supports a graduate tax! The idea that these people can be trusted to lead the student movement in this critical period is clearly a joke.
That is why activists from the left, including the Campaign for Free Education and the Socialists Workers Party, have organised a united left 'Education not war' slate for the elections at this year's conference. The slate, headed by Solidarity and Workers' Liberty supporter Kat Fletcher, is based on a clear programme of support for student activism and opposition to the Government:
- Free education for all. NUS must demand vocally that the Government tax the rich to fund education, and launch a fighting campaign against the student funding White Paper.
- No war on Iraq. NUS must go beyond lip-service to the anti-war movement, and give a lead to thousands of students in rebellion against the war.
- A democratic, fighting union. Students need a union that fights militantly for their interests and builds links of solidarity with the labour movement and other progressive forces in Britain and worldwide.
Despite their success in excluding international issues from the main agenda, the existing NUS leadership may not be able to dominate the conference. After a long struggle by the Campaign for Free Education, they look set to lose the vote on means-testing (which they support) for the first time since 1995; and we will be fighting to ensure that, one way or another, the war is discussed.
At a time when top-up fees threaten the complete privatisation of British universities; when the attack on Iraq looks set to be only the start of an extended US war-drive; when labour movement militancy is finally beginning to revive - the need for a radical, campaigning National Union of Students is greater than ever. The debates and elections at this conference are an opportunity to make that happen.