The future of the student movement
A grassroots activist meeting in London discusses alternatives to the NUS
The Anticapitalist Initiative and activists from NCAFC and the Soas anti-cuts group organised a forum in London yesterday on the theme, ‘do we need an alternative to the NUS?’ It brought together 31 activists with a shared sense of frustration at the NUS bureaucracy for failing to develop a powerful movement to defend education.
Short contributions from Ben Beach, Michael Chessum, Alex Benham and Maham Hashmi-Khan kicked off the discussion. Alex had come up from Sussex where some of the occupiers had, prior to the occupation, launched a project called ‘Renegade Union’ conceived as a local alternative, radical union to the NUS tops. Although the meeting was pitched as a debate, it actually transpired there was substantial amount of common ground on developing an alternative grassroots union structure to the NUS bureaucracy.
Themes that came up in the discussion were:
> Commercial role of the NUS and its relationship to local managerial bureaucracies and commercial services within student unions;
> Compulsory character of NUS membership and its dependence on state-funding, meaning it can claim to represent ‘7 million students’ who exist in a largely passive relationship to the bureaucratic hierarchy;
> Pros and cons of individual membership student unions found in other countries, such as France, whether this was a model or not (i.e. no state financed compulsory membership, but also fairly weak union structures);
> Importance of being pragmatic and realistic in the steps we take and taking care not to dream up beautiful models that can’t be realised;
> Danger of getting caught in the radical bubble that can be found in more elite institutions and risk that a break with NUS cuts us off more institutions with a less active, political culture on campus and are unlikely to break from NUS;
> Big demonstration on 10 November 2010 was an exception for the NUS whose track record at mobilising students and opposing attacks on education is pretty dreadful. Role of NCAFC in calling for walkouts after 10 November as an example of the impact grassroots networks can potentially have.
There seemed to be broad consensus that NCAFC and other student organisations should take steps to develop alternative union structures in parallel to the NUS and that an NUS disaffiliation campaign would not be useful at the current time. The main differences seemed to be over whether any intervention into the NUS was worthwhile or not, and how quickly an alternative grassroots union structure could be built.
We agreed to come back to the issue in a month’s time and look forward to discussing it more at the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference in June.