Next week, Warwick students will be asked to vote to decide whether to continue Warwick SU’s membership in the National Union of Students. As campaigners for a free, democratic, liberated education system, we see the campaign to get Warwick SU disaffiliated from the NUS for what it is: a right-wing, opportunistic, disingenuous backlash. The ‘NUS Exit Warwick’ campaign seeks to delegitimise the NUS by accusing it of being ‘too political’, ‘undemocratic’ and ‘unrepresentative’. It is no coincidence that these accusations are being raised now in the specific context of the recent NUS National Conference (as it happens the largest democratic meeting of students in Europe) electing a principled left-wing leadership last month, on an explicit mandate of fighting the Tory government’s attacks on Further and Higher Education.
Let us not be fooled by this hypocritical rhetoric. The intrinsic purpose of a national union is to be a political body, to take principled stances and fight to defend the material interests of its members. The NUS is not without its problems, and there is much to be done in order to improve its accountability mechanisms and the workings of its internal democracy. But at this moment in time, public Higher Education in the UK is faced with some of the biggest attacks in decades. This coming Wednesday, the Government is likely to announce a Higher Education bill outlining the introduction of a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will pave the way for tuition fee increases above £9k and for the further marketization of the sector. This comes on top of a barrage of other attacks that we must fight against on a national level. Students’ Unions’ autonomy and campaigning power is under threat. International students are faced with ever-increasing draconian immigration rules limiting their rights to live and work in the UK, and the threat of students facing deportations is as real as ever, as the recent cases of Luqman Onikosi and Lord Apetsi have shown. NHS bursaries for nursing students have been slashed. The islamophobic Prevent agenda continues to racially profile and target Muslim students on our campuses.
At this moment in time, we need more than ever to exercise our collective power to defeat the Government’s attacks on public education: to destroy the TEF before it ever becomes a reality; to build momentum to abolish Prevent; to defend international students against the government’s xenophobic agenda. And it is clear that this collective power is best exercised right now by staying within NUS, by finding strength in unity and numbers, at a time in which its democratic mandate, finally, is to fight and organise to defeat the Government’s destructive attacks on our education system. And we also mustn’t forget all the fundamental work that the NUS does to support liberation campaigns nationally and, crucially, on campuses all over the UK in the fight against sexism, racism and xenophobia, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. Fundamental campaigns such as ‘I ❤ Consent’, ‘Liberate my degree’, ‘Students Not Suspects’ and the decision to finally introduce a full-time Trans students officer are a testament to this vital work, which is incredibly helpful in supporting and providing advice and resources to liberation struggles on our campus, too.
Obviously, our struggles do not begin and do not end with the NUS – they never have and never will. In our fight for a free, democratic and liberated education system we will continue to have our disagreements with the NUS’ bureaucracy, and to question the discourse which seeks to repurpose it as a vehicle for improving the consumerist notion of the ‘student experience’. It is not an NUS which is ‘political’ and empowers its members to fight for their collective interests that is ‘out of touch’ – quite the contrary, it is a union that is passive, professionalised, and controlled by unelected trustees, managers and agendas of ‘cost effectiveness’ and ‘value for money’. For many years the NUS has not supported struggle and grassroots mobilization, and has been unwilling to genuinely challenge Government attacks. It has condemned militancy, withdrawn support for free education demonstrations, and done almost nothing to support students victimised by state and university repression for their political activities. But now this has the potential to change.
Most importantly we will continue to agitate, organise and fight, on our campuses and on the streets, outside of its formal structures, on our own terms, because the NUS is just one way in which we exercise our collective power and strength and cannot ever be effective in the absence of militant grassroots mobilization. We know that no representative can win the education system and world we want on our behalf. We will not and cannot hinge all our hopes upon the NUS, and maintain our commitment to self-organization and autonomous struggle. But it is an important tool, especially at the present time, and we cannot afford to lose it at the hands of an opportunistic, right-wing backlash which seeks solely to delegitimise, isolate and weaken the student movement’s opposition to the Government’s attacks on education.
That’s why we are fully supporting a YES vote to NUS membership in next week’s ASM vote, and strongly encourage all Warwick students to do the same.