National Union of Students – Our Union, Our Voice

Daragh O’Neill, Student Officer of the YCL, gives his thoughts on the student movement in Britain and the role that communists should take within it to fight for change.

The NUS is best known by students for the discounts you get being an automatic member, hardly inspiring social change. From more political students I’ve overheard the idea of national officers being called “Scabbatical Officers” for not supporting the 19th November demonstration, despite their clear mandate from conference to do so. This reflects the growing level of anger in those who are politically engaged, with the NUS seeming incapable of organising any political activity. Only some superficial (but admittedly important) voter registration work has been done. This wasn’t an NUS initiative though, only the #generationvote online campaign being their idea. The distinction between a union that services its members and one that represents them is an important one, and the part of NUS corporatization of Higher Education has led to it being more of a service, than a union for students.

This frustration with the NUS causes something that’s a problem on campuses; student politics being small isolated transient activist groups, and small discussion groups, more concerned with recruiting members to their parent organization than anything else. The point is these groups are often quite self-contained, and while they are doing a lot, if the NUS pulling out of last year’s demo proves anything, it’s that we need to do more to engage in our union itself, and by extension more students.

The problem is much of the means to do this no longer exist in many universities. It’s telling that many of the more political students unions still have general meetings, which are increasingly rare, although the fact they’re in London is also a factor.  In many universities this is then coupled with the fact that voting for student officers and policies is now online. To make student politics any more superficial, individualistic and have even less actual engagement would be extremely difficult.

To make the student movement strong we have to make the NUS become a student’s trade union again, not just pass policy at conference. This begins on individual campuses to deliver the local Student’s Union leadership we need, not the other way around. Election for new officers will be starting soon and a campaign for democracy is the first step we need for strengthening our whole movement. This would mean general meetings for a start, all students being able to attend as equals, not just relying on existing political or campaigning groups. Some of these groups are notoriously undemocratic anyway for various reasons. This would also reach out to all students on the issues that affect them, allowing politicization rather than the other way around.

The YCL is making plans about how to develop new structures for the NUS as part of our student work, how to make the student movement more sustained in its work, that develops the movement as a whole, not just another introverted campaign. This is crucial as change never comes from the benevolence of the ruling class, only from the creation of a movement that can challenge it, led by ordinary people ourselves, not just another set of politicians.

Capitalism thrives where democracy is shallow, because it has potential to overthrow it, if realized to mean more than the narrow limitations of our ‘official’ democracy. In universities we can start doing our part as students organising for ourselves and making relationships with allies, largely in the labour movement. We must then use that key tool of ours; our union, for our voice to be heard, to make it what it is meant to be. Change doesn’t come by just passing motions, nor through isolation, so in our local and national free education and anti-austerity groups, the question of democracy and the power of students, needs to be addressed if we want to engage more students. Having our Student Unions become the organization that truly represents us all. We must work to make them open to all, for campaign groups to play a part in shaping politics, and we must begin to think about how our relationship with the NUS is structured to make sure it represents us properly.

This would mean organising more like a trade union nationally, with each Student’s Union operating as a branch, with more information going both ways. With more involvement Student Unions would once again have leadership by students themselves, those already organising on campus could reach out to others, and we would able to hold the National Executive Committee to account. People’s Democracy is the basis with which we Communists seek change, without it we are left playing the establishment’s game.

There are of course many issues with student politics and there will be more posts on other issues. This is only the beginning.

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