By Fiona Edwards
NUS National Conference 2014, which took place 8-10 April, saw major advances for the left, marking a turning point for the student movement.
The majority of the current NUS leadership is united in attempting to keep a lid on student anger against the government’s attacks on education and students. At this Conference the NUS leadership absurdly argued against having a national student demonstration in the year before a General Election, a critical window of opportunity where the student movement needs to pile as much pressure on politicians as possible.
The proposal for NUS to organise a national demonstration was narrowly defeated, however this year’s NUS National Conference was far from business as usual. The leadership was defeated in major policy debates and the left made big, unexpected advances in the elections.
Two decades of capitulation on tuition fees and student debt was finally broken at this year’s National Conference with the passing of a policy supporting free education and rejecting the NUS leadership’s call for a graduate tax as a ‘euphemism for student debt’. This motion passed in the face of both the NUS National President and Vice President Higher Education speaking against free education in the debate.
Aaron Kiely, NUS Black Students’ Officer, set the tone of the debate with his proposing speech, stating:
‘There are those who claim there is no alternative to charging students tens of thousands of pounds for education. Unfortunately they aren’t just to be found in Tory HQ but shamefully in the leadership of this National Union of Students.
‘Let’s be clear, the leadership’s policy of a “graduate tax” is just replacing one form of student debt with another. And look where this road of capitulation and betrayal has left us. For far too long NUS has abandoned the principle of free education – during this time tuition fees have been trebled once and trebled again.’
The fact that Germany has recently taken the decision to scrap tuition fees, along with powerful arguments around how free education is both affordable and socially just, won the debate on Conference floor.
In the face of rising scapegoating of immigrants to distract from the real causes of falling living standards – austerity, the student movement is uniting to stand up to racism and bigotry. NUS National Conference overwhelmingly voted that it should be a priority for the student movement to actively oppose racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and the far right as well stand up to the bigotry of UKIP.
In another big victory for the left, Piers Telemacque was elected as the next NUS Vice President Society and Citizenship, a full time Officer position in charge of NUS’ General Election strategy and campaigning.
Piers, an independent left wing candidate who is President of Bradford College Students’ Union and a member of the NUS Black Students’ Committee, stood on an impressive record of fighting austerity and racism. In a result that no one expected, Piers defeated candidates backed by Labour Students and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts in the first round with 52% of the vote. Student Broad Left supported his campaign.
Whilst the current NUS leadership retained the NUS Presidency and the remaining four NUS Vice President positions, the left achieved good results, including 33% for President and 38% in the VP Union Development elections.
In the NUS National Executive Block of 15 elections the left won 7 positions, up from the 4 won last year – a reflection of the growing strength of the left within the NUS.
Following the victories at this year’s NUS National Conference, the left in the student movement must ensure that these successes are consolidated and not rolled back.
This means uniting to pressure the NUS leadership to implement the anti-austerity policies that were passed at Conference: on launching a campaign for free education, on supporting the ongoing battle for fair pay in higher and further education, and on implementing the battle plan to stop the privatization of student loans which was overwhelmingly passed – this is the next big attack on students and requires a huge, united campaign to stop the government in their tracks.
The next key opportunity for students to build a broad, national movement against austerity is support Stand Up For Education – No More Austerity on Saturday 21 June – the student bloc on the People’s Assembly Against Austerity demonstration. The Student Assembly Against Austerity is organising the student bloc and is holding a national meeting on Sunday 22 June to discuss the way forward for the student fight back against austerity.