The leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) yesterday revoked its support of the national student demonstration which is set to take place on 19 November under the banner: ‘Free Education – No Fees, No Cuts, No Debt’. The demo, which is being organised and backed by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, Young Greens and the Student Assembly Against Austerity, has been a predominantly grassroots affair, with NUS arriving late to the party following a vote of its National Executive Committee.
Reasons for the U-turn ostensibly include the lack of public liability insurance, an unsatisfactory risk assessment and concerns over the demonstration (not) being a safe space. This last point is rumoured to stem from concerns about the presence of the Socialist Workers Party, still poisoned by its rape cover-up. Not that this dissuaded NUS from throwing its lot in with the recent Trades Union Congress demonstration where the SWP were out in full force.
Free education has been a frequent sticking point in NUS. Heavily Labour-dominated, it has historically favoured policies such as ‘Keep the Cap’ or its embarrassing ‘graduate tax‘ rather than a return to free education funded by general taxation. Indeed the vote for a free education policy was only narrowly passed at NUS annual conference, and it has been suggested that the revocation of support by the leadership against its democratic mandate owes to divergences over ‘priorities’ within the union.
This is not an isolated event. Those familiar with the student movement since the Coalition came to power are unlikely to be surprised by the latest nail in the coffin of the NUS. Here are just a few that preceded it:
Nail 1. The condemnation of Millbank.
52,000 students hit the streets on 10 November 2010, one week after the Coalition announced its plans for HE cuts and tuition fee hikes. As the march ambled along past Tory HQ, a few thousand protesters stopped by for an impromptu visit which resulted in an occupation. Then-NUS President, Aaron Porter, condemned students for ‘hijacking’ the demonstration while they were still in the building.
As the London Evening Standard went to press that afternoon, the ‘peaceful’ march sat on page 16. Following Millbank, students were on the front page of every national paper the next morning.
Nail 2. Parliament Square and the ‘Glow Stick Vigil’.
On 9 December 2010 around 30,000 students demonstrated in Parliament Square to coincide with a symbolic vote taking place in the Commons on whether to raise tuition fees. As police began to kettle protesters and bar them from leaving (for up to 11 hours), tensions rose – exacerbated by some seriously shocking acts of police brutality such as horse charges.
They also dragged disabled student Jody McIntyre from his wheelchair for ‘rolling towards‘ armoured police…
…and struck Alfie Meadows so hard with a baton that he had to have immediate live-saving brain surgery.
The NUS naturally condemned students for their violence in throwing sticks and breaking some windows at the Treasury. Not that NUS apparatchiks had been in attendance – they’d been on Victoria Embankment holding a candlelight vigil to mark the vote. With glow sticks instead of candles. Risk assessment, innit?
Nail 3. The long road to Kennington.
Aaron Porter didn’t seek re-election in 2011, opting instead to start up as a consultant to, er, universities. His successor, Liam Burns, stepped up to the activist plate with the much-hyped #Demo2012, which marched 10,000 students to Kennington in Zone 2 under that memorable and inspirational banner: ‘Educate. Empower. Employ.’
The day turned sour for Burnsy when students turned on the speakers, chanting: “NUS, shame on you, where the fuck have you brought us to?”
After which students stormed the stage…
…meaning that all in all, sentiments following NUS’s big day trip to Kennington were summed up by this banner:
Nail 4. Honourable mention: A certain Rod.
It should be noted that when it comes to nails in the NUS coffin, the leadership has usually been doing the hammering itself. An honourable exception took the form of a certain Rod. An Inanimate Carbon Rod, to be precise, which launched a bid for the union presidency in 2013.
Dismissed as a tedious joke by many, the Rod nevertheless gained massive amounts of Facebook likes – way ahead of any other candidate – and made an important point about growing irrelevance of NUS.
The pinnacle of the the campaign was ‘official bearer’ Sam Gaus’s hustings speech, which laid out with both great satire and jolting clarity the continued failings of the NUS at precisely the time when its members need it most.
Photo credit: indyrikki