At last, the NUS is back on our side
You’d be forgiven for forgetting what it’s there for. But finally, that glorious bastion of bureaucracy that is the National Union of Students, is calling for a week of action against the government’s Higher Education plans.
I say ‘plans’ and not ‘reforms’, because the latter carries the misleading notion that they will be beneficial (and if the role of the private sector in our gas companies post-privatisation is anything to go by, boosting the scope for private companies in universities will be anything but).
After failing to call a single major protest after the demonstration in November 2010 – the notorious Milbank demo – the NUS has crawled out of its shell and asked for student walkouts, a week of action and a mass lobby of Parliament next month, from the 12th to the 17th of March.
Certainly not bad for a start. Yet the timing could not have been stranger. The statement came out on Liam Burns’ (NUS President) blog just a couple of days after the government announced they were withdrawing the Higher Education Bill from Parliament.
This is a bill which up until that point the NUS had only opposed because of its vagueness, saying it lacked ‘concrete proposals for how quality, accountability and access will be improved’.
For a bill which sought the proliferation of private universities charging uncapped fees, the possibility of public universities going bankrupt and closing, and state subsidies for choosing to attend these profit-making institutions, the NUS didn’t particularly seem to mind then.
That was under the delightful Aaron Porter of course – now making up to £5k a week as an education consultant. The election of Liam Burns offered a glimmer of hope for students which they hadn’t seen under the stewardship of Porter, not least the manifesto commitment to ‘hold a national demonstration to mark the first anniversary of the increase in tuition fees’.
Did we get the demonstration? Not quite. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts called one instead on the 9th of November which the NUS refused to back. The result was police intimidation and less than 10,000 marchers. Compared with the 50,000 strong NUS demo at the height of the tuition fee controversy, not a great turnout. Where was Liam Burns back then?
With the future of higher education in the UK looking more and more uncertain, it’s vital that we have an NUS that’s willing to fight. While the union has picked a fairly niche subject to protest against – the expansion of private sector involvement in HE without legislative scrutiny – it’s a welcome start.
Still, behind all the actions planned, the NUS has fallen short of making one much needed call for a national demonstration. Despite Mark Bergfeld, who sits on the NUS Executive, launching a petition to get the Sabbatical team to call a major London protest, it has fallen on deaf ears. What’s going to happen after the week of action? Will the campaign fizzle out like the tuition fees protests? A serious campaign of rolling action seems to be the only way to get a government hell-bent on bringing the market into everything – the NHS, welfare, schools – to listen.
The lecturers’ union knows a thing or two about how to campaign. They’ve consistently supported demonstrations against pension and education cuts, have called several strikes over the past year and will be striking again in March.
Student walkouts on the same day would strengthen both campaigns – against private-sector outsourcing and profiteering, and against attacks on lecturers. Yet with just a month to go, the date for student walkouts has still not been set by the NUS. Never mind the blind leading the blind – this is the blind leading the sighted.
What can we draw from this saga? The education campaign is clearly far from over. None of us now, after all, are paying £9k fees. But it’s hard to imagine that students paying three times what we are will be complacent. Indeed, students may be increasingly seen as consumers - but consumers can get angry too. And we had better hope that the NUS’ recent radical turn is here to stay.
For now though, we can take some consolation. The NUS is back on our side.