The advance of the left in the student movement

Photo by retro-philj
Students protest against spending cuts and increased tuition fees 2010

By Jennifer Nash

On Wednesday 21 November tens of thousands of students will march in central London on NUS’ national demonstration against the government’s attacks on education. This will be the first time NUS has organised a national mobilisation to defend students against the coalition’s intensifying attacks in two years.

The calling of this national demonstration comes as the result of a concerted and broad campaign by the left within the student movement for NUS to resist the Tories attacks on students and education. The most oppressed sections of students, Black students, have led this fight – uniting other oppressed sections including women, LGBT and disabled students and the left to defeat the majority of the NUS leadership who have been battling against all proposals to take any action to defend students from cuts, fees and rising student debt since the last national demo it organised in 2010.

This victory is important in that it shows that students will not passively accept the Tory onslaught, in a context where very little resistance is taking place in Britain to the greatest assault on living standards for generations.

It has significantly strengthened the left within the NUS and the wider student movement; particularly anti-racist and anti-imperialist currents that led the campaign.

The struggle to defend students against the capitalist offensive

The government has launched an all-out attack on students with enormous cuts to further and higher education, trebling tuition fees, soaring student debt, and the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

This summer has seen renewed attacks with Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s last minute changes to the GCSE grade boundaries, which meant that thousands of the poorest and most disadvantaged students have been marked down, costing them their places on college courses to continue studying. The government has now scandalously removed London Met University’s licence to teach and recruit international students from outside the EU which means that the 2,600 international students currently studying at London Met will shortly be deported, unable to complete their studies unless they are lucky enough to find a place at another institution with weeks to go until the start of term. A petition has been initiated by NUS calling upon the government to reverse this decision and allow these students to complete their courses.

The key battle line within NUS is whether or not these attacks should be actively opposed and a campaign built against them.

The majority view within NUS asserted itself at the National Conference in April with the passing of a motion for NUS “to organise a national demonstration in the first term of 2012-13 against cuts, fees, high interest on student debts and privatisation.”

Committing NUS to protest against the government’s attacks on students was a big internal battle.

NUS Black Students’ Officer, Kanja Sesay and LGBT Officer Vicki Baars, led a very impressive and broad campaign in the run up to the National Conference in support of NUS organising a national demonstration, including a statement supported by 150 student leaders.

The majority of the current NUS leadership fought against this every step of the way, with incumbent President and nearly all of Vice Presidents at the time voting against the motion for the demo, despite an overwhelming majority of delegates supporting it. Since the conference voted for the national demo, the majority of the NUS leadership have attempted to sabotage it on a number of occasions: including attempts to cancel the demo entirely by merging with the TUC protest and suggestions that the demo take place in December once students have gone on Christmas holidays and at a location with no political significance.

The ongoing campaigns inside NUS calling for the national demo to march on Parliament and on a date in November that maximises attendance were decisive in ensuring that these acts of sabotage were thwarted.

A broad campaign, led by those sections of the student movement most affected by the cuts – Black, women, LGBT and disabled students – together with the left, forced the NUS leadership to have a demo it does not want – the first NUS national demonstration in two years.

Rather than do everything it can to defend students from the Tories’ attack on education the NUS leadership has attempted to keep a lid on the growing discontent amongst students. It should be fighting on the key issues – campaigning against cuts, fees and bringing back EMA.

Shift to left in NUS

The successful campaign for NUS to organise a national demonstration demonstrated how the left stands up to defend all students and so assisted one of its leaders, Vicki Baars (NUS LGBT Officer, Women’s Place 2010-12) in winning one of the five NUS Vice President positions. This was a significant breakthrough for the left following several years of domination by right wing Labourite currents. The overall vote for the left and its representation within NUS has improved.

In light of these left wing electoral advances vigilance is needed on the possibility of renewed attacks on internal democracy within NUS. The NUS ‘governance review’ which passed a few years ago made NUS much less democratic. This benefits the right, who do not stand for the real interests of students and who move frequently to silence the legitimate voice of students.

As the left’s advances have the potential of opening up a bigger space for progressive politics within NUS a renewed attack on NUS democracy by the right is a possible response.

Advances in anti-racism and anti-imperialism

The NUS Black Students Campaign continues to be the main bulwark against racism and reaction within NUS and in getting NUS to fight both of these in wider society. It was the leadership of the NUS Black Students Campaign, working with the left that constructed the alliance that allowed the majority view that NUS should actively oppose to attacks on students from the Tory-led government to be expressed at conference.

Alongside the most significant breakthrough of winning NUS to a position of organising a national demo, the left has also made advances in the areas of anti-racism and anti-imperialism.

With a backdrop of rising racism across all sections of our society, there has been a significant rolling back of the work NUS does to challenge racism and fascism in recent years. In the past NUS has run impressive anti-racism campaigns, including the high profile ‘When Students Vote Racists Lose’ campaign in 2009 to get the student vote out to stop the fascist BNP securing seats in the European Parliament.

However, since then the NUS Anti-Racism/Anti-Fascism Campaign conference and budget have been scrapped; the NUS National Conference in 2010 voted to censure the NUS Black Students’ Officer for implementing NUS’ no platform policy in a Students’ Union; and last year NUS Conference voted to disaffiliate from the Unite Against Fascism campaign

At this year’s NUS National Conference, however, this reactionary trend began to be reversed with votes to re-affiliate to Unite Against Fascism and to re-establish the NUS Anti-Racism/Anti-Fascism Campaign conference and budget. These decisions can now be used to build campaigns against the racist climate that is impacting on campuses, which has seen violent Islamophobic attacks, some sports’ teams playing Nazi drinking games and others ‘Blacking up’ in their union bars.

A significant advance NUS’ position on Palestine has also been achieved.

In 2004 a Glasgow Media group survey of young people indicated only 9% knew that Israel was the occupying Palestine. However, Israel’s 2008-09 assault on Gaza exposed the crimes against the Palestinians to a generation and sparked a substantial increase in solidarity amongst young people.

Thousands of young people protested against Israel’s assault on Gaza. 30 university campuses were occupied in solidarity with the Palestinians – an unprecedented step – and dozens more organized other solidarity activities. Following these events many new Palestine societies were created on campuses.

But despite this campaigning activity and the clear horror students felt at the brutal assault on Gaza in 2009, the NUS failed to condemn Israel’s violence and instead attacked students for organizing occupations in solidarity with Palestine. It disaffiliated from the Stop the War Coalition for their participation in the allegedly “anti-Semitic” demonstrations demanding an end to Israel’s aggression. Later that year in December 2009 the NUS President went to Israel and met with Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister who had been part of the war cabinet during the attacks on Gaza.

In 2010, the NUS President refused to condemn Israel’s scandalous and murderous attack on the Mavi Marmara and Gaza aid flotilla and instead supported Israel’s claim that it would to launch its own objective investigation into the events – when in fact what it did was just to paper over Israel’s indefensible violence and spread false claims that participants in the convoy had been armed.

But this year has, at last, seen a shift in the NUS’ position on Palestine. The NUS National Executive has voted for motions in support of Palestinian human rights and against Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank.

In an unprecedented step, Labour Student and NUS Vice President Society & Citizenship, Dannie Grufferty, used her report to this year’s NUS Conference to outline the work she had done to support Students’ Unions boycotting companies complicit with the illegal occupation of the West Bank.

This small but significant shift in a part of the NUS leadership’s approach to Palestine takes place in the context of a very right wing government in Israel with even US President Obama wanting to partially constrain its expansion of settlements as these have complicated its relations with the Palestinian Authority. Likewise the bourgeoisie in Europe are taking less cravenly anti-Palestine positions. This criticism of Israel’s has had an impact on the right wing currents that operate within the NUS.

Way forward: building opposition to the Tory-led offensive on students

We are facing the biggest assault on our living standards for generations, yet the struggle against austerity and cuts remains very weak.

This autumn there will be two key opportunities to demonstrate opposition to these attacks: the TUC March on Saturday 20 October and the NUS national demonstration on Wednesday 21 November.

Building the biggest possible student mobilisation for the TUC March on 20 October will help strike a blow against the government and shows the extent of the growing rejection of its economic policies.

After that the key task for all student activists is to build flat out for the NUS demonstration in London on Wednesday 21 November so that we have the biggest possible protest against the cuts, fees and student debt.

The NUS is producing a demo tip of the week for Students’ Unions and student activists, the first of which can be found online here. Action points for students can also be found at the Student Broad Left website.

The Student Broad Left and the National Black Students’ Alliance is holding a conference called ‘Student Fightback 2012’ on Saturday 13 October which will discuss a wide range of issues confronting students and will provide an opportunity to discuss stepping up the mobilisation for both the TUC and NUS national demonstrations.