The National Union of Students (NUS) is often decried as irrelevant. Sadly, that’s not the whole picture. Not only is student politics the training ground for some of the worst Labour leadership hacks, it is also where a significant proportion of the young left is educated, and where some of the ideological fights in new and emerging lefts are played out in their sharpest and most bellicose form.
By far the most prevalent influence the NUS has over its grassroots is in its ability to reflect and create a ‘common sense’ – and one of the most potent, and least noticed, tools that it has is the manipulation of language. A lack of ideological consistency and institutional memory among student activists, combined with a historic defeat for the left, has allowed bureaucratic structures to deploy a series of buzzwords which often have effects that are opposed to what the original concepts were intended to mean.
Until last year, NUS was one of a tiny handful of national student representative bodies in the world not to support free higher education. Contrary to what is widely understood outside of the organisation, its leadership did not rest its case against free education based on right-wing rhetoric about economic sustainability. Quite the opposite: for many years, Labour Students and their allies made a point of attacking the left from the left.
Access – the ability of working class and marginalised potential students to reach higher education –has become a key part of this rhetorical routine, and is the main buzzword underlying the opposition to free education.
The argument goes that if tuition fees were abolished, this would detract from the ‘access agenda’ – because bursaries would have to be cut, or money taken out of primary schools or the NHS – in order to fund the abolition of fees. Free education has routinely been voted down and attacked by NUS on the grounds that it is ‘bad for access’.
In other words, access to education – a means by which people can emancipate themselves and conceive of the world in a radically new way – has in fact come to mean the entrance of particular demographics into higher education within very narrow and conventional assumptions about what education is for (gaining skills) and where funding can come from (cutting other public services). Access means support for tuition fees.
About four years ago, a new wave of feminism and liberation politics began to find a home first in the student left and later in the NUS bureaucracy. The adherents of this new politics were on the left, though by and large not from a specific tradition or group, and their watch-word was intersectionality.
Intersectionality is an important conceptual tool for the left. It provides an additional conceptual framework for oppressed people to come together to form alliances to fight for the liberation of society as a whole, and moves forward from crude identity politics. It is also a key argument for pluralism and nuance in liberation movements; if oppressions and resistance intersect in so many varied ways, it is ludicrous to claim that there is a single legitimate political position that all oppressed people hold.
The term is now thrown around in a myriad of different ways within the NUS bureaucracy, and has lost almost all meaning in some contexts. Intersectionality is now used to describe election results in which sabbatical officer teams are not all white men, or to describe people who self-define into more than one liberation group, or sometimes just to describe a political position which is in agreement with, or name-checks, the leaderships of the four NUS liberation campaigns (representing women, Black, LGBT and disabled students).
But much worse than simply losing its meaning, the transformation of intersectionality into a shibboleth has acted as cover for very different ideas to take hold. In many contexts, intersectionality extends merely to the use of labels; if you disagree with any given prevailing consensus and aren’t high up enough in the ranking of oppression, your arguments are invalid or even oppressive in themselves. Political pluralism and the agency of the oppressed has in some circles been sidelined in favour of orthodox political wisdom: disagreeing with certain policies or advocating others is deemed to make you a puppet for men or straight people.
A term which was supposed to connote an approach to politics which was transformative has instead – in its application in the NUS bureaucracy – ended up not so far from the liberal and radical feminisms that its primary adherents first sought to critique and supersede; a version of politics which seeks to gain power through entrenched perspectivism and securing positions of power in student unions from which to legislate for change.
Autonomy should be a means of moving power away from powerful institutions and groups – union leaderships, men, white people – and giving it to those with less power, via the creation of spaces and processes that enable independent organisation.
The inversion of autonomy is one of the core elements of the NUS bureaucracy’s ideology.
To take a recent example, Teesside University students’ union has spent the past four months blocking any attempt to campaign on free education, eventually declaring that doing so would be illegal. Union officers may even have forged a letter from the Charities Commission to back themselves up. In the past week, the union went so far as disqualifying a presidential candidate from elections on the grounds that his promise to campaign for free education would also be illegal (he has since been reinstated).
NUS refused to intervene – and in fact certain NUS officers went so far as to condemn attempts from other organisations, such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, to hold Teesside accountable, because doing so would infringe on the ‘autonomy’ of the union.
The internal politics of NUS is full of these occurrences. When students at the University of Birmingham were subject to unprecedented repression and Birmingham Guild of Students failed to lift a finger to protect them, criticism of the Guild’s leadership was called out as “an attack on autonomy.” When various NUS further education officers failed to mobilise against cuts to Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in 2010-11, criticism was denounced as the intrusion of university students on the autonomy of further education.
Autonomy within a broader movement is supposed to be the source of free criticism and independent action – an understanding that, while ideas may be exchanged, final decisions rest with the people affected. In NUS, it has come to mean bureaucratic impunity and cronyism.
These processes are of course by no means unique, but the recent history of the student movement is an object lesson in the ability of prevailing mainstream political institutions to take potentially radical and subversive ideas from an emerging left – on education funding, liberation from oppression, freedom to organise – and, by mediating the words used to describe them, turn them on their head. The practical effect of these rhetorical and semantic games will, to some extent, always be instructive for what happens on the broader left.