NUS conference is meeting this year in the midst of an unprecedented crisis for itself as an organisation.
The NUS is on the brink of bankruptcy. The responsibility for this catastrophic situation clearly lies with years of successive right wing NUS leaderships who have pushed through undemocratic reforms which have concentrated power in the hands of unaccountable and inept leaders. What has made them inept is their rejection of their role in leading student struggle, instead using the NUS as a springboard into political careers in pro-big businesses parties. They have totally failed to fight for students – including when fees were introduced in 1997, and when they were trebled in 2010, and they have failed to mobilise the massive student support for Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto in the streets against a crisis ridden Tory government.
The reform motion submitted by NUS’ so called “Turnaround Board” says that “there have been attempts to fix NUS’ democracy and governance as far back as 2004.”
There certainly have been reforms since then. But they have not been to the benefit of ordinary students, but rather designed to deliberately side-line and alienate students from the structures of the NUS.
Governance reviews pushed through undemocratically by the NUS’ bureaucracy deliberately side lined the active involvement of students in the internal life of the NUS as a campaigning organisation, and converted it into little more than a charity or a think tank, lobbying politicians without the involvement of its rank and file. NUS’ strength is in its million-strong membership, but this has not been mobilised in defence of students’ rights.
This is summed up by the fact that it was an unaccountable board of trustees who presented a report to last year’s April conference, misleading conference and stating that they had ‘no concerns’ about the financial state of the organisation!
In response to the financial crisis, the Turnaround Board produced a ‘White Paper’ of proposals on how to reform the NUS for consultation to produce the reform motion presented to conference.
But how was this so called ‘consultation’ undertaken? The leadership of the NUS allowed Students’ Unions to submit their official responses without any involvement or democratic discussion whatsoever with students themselves – just responses from SU presidents or CEOs! It’s obvious to all that this entire process has been an undemocratic sham from beginning to end.
The results of this sham consultation are laid bare in the reform motion presented to this year’s conference, as well as a new set of Articles and Rules for the NUS.
Given the lateness of the release of this document, it’s impossible to deal with every detail of what is proposed.
But what’s clear is the proposals mean that the last vestiges of control by ordinary students over the NUS’ political direction are to be removed. An annual NUS manifesto is to be set out, not to be determined by a democratic conference, but instead by a new ‘cabinet’, made up of the 7 full time officers, and to be approved by a board of directors. Students will only be involved to be ‘consulted’ on, not through a conference and face to face democratic discussion and debate, but through online ballots!
While conference will be made even shorter, Students Unions’ will be free to select their delegations however they want – without holding campus wide elections if they choose. Additionally, the proposals argue for the abolition of the NEC, a body which potentially could channel the desire of students for mass struggle , the cutting of 13 full time officers positions, and for elections of full time officers to be contested purely on personal ‘merit’, not on political ideas or manifestos.
These final proposals, if successfully pushed through, could potentially finish the process set in motion years ago when the first governance reviews were introduced by Blairite Presidents such as Wes Streeting (now an anti-Corbyn MP) - seeing the further transformation of the NUS away from an organisation which can lead students in struggle, moving towards the status of a think tank.
That’s why Socialist Students rejects all proposals put forward by the current leadership, including the proposals to cut funding to liberation campaigns and to current full time officers.
However, the NUS does find itself in a state of genuine financial crisis. That’s why we call for the opening of the NUS’s books to the democratic oversight of students and elected NUS officials as part of a democratic investigation into the organisation’s finances, and potential financial solutions to the crisis, led by students and democratically elected officials.
A crucial step towards this would be the organisation of general emergency meetings on campuses organised either by Students’ Unions or students and campaigners ourselves dedicated to discussing building a democratic and fighting national students’ union and potential solutions to the NUS’ financial crisis. Out of this could come an extraordinary national conference to discuss the way forward for our movement out of this crisis in the NUS, open to all students, campaigners and activists.
This could come from a successful struggle to fundamentally transform the NUS; to fight for a re-founded NUS as a democratic, accountable and fighting organisation that puts the fight for things like free education and student grants, affordable student housing, the fight against cuts and marketisation and the struggle to kick out the Tories centre stage.
Socialist Students stands for a student movement which links up with workers in the fight for a society based on peoples’ needs, not the profits of big business – a socialist society.
If these reforms do go through however, it is very doubtful that the NUS will be an organisation which can lead on these issues – in which case, the task of building a new national students’ union will be crucial. In a time when the Tory government is wracked by such deep crisis, and with such huge opportunities for students wanting to fight back, it is vital that we have continue the fight to get organised on a local level on our campuses and link up nationally in the fight against austerity. The recent climate strikes, the 2017 general election, and the student support for the UCU strikes last year all demonstrate the huge appetite for this.
A national students’ union that fights for free education, for students’ rights, and to kick out the Tories
Mass students meetings on every campus and college to discuss the way forward for our movement