. Beyond NUS? Last week's student march could signal the dawn of a new movement | Ceasefire Magazine

Beyond NUS? Last week’s student march could signal the dawn of a new movement Special Report

Last week, the National Union of Students organised a march that has since been heavily criticised for its lack of demands, turnout and action. Adam Elliott-Cooper reports for Ceasefire.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Thursday, November 29, 2012 22:47 - 7 Comments


Students from York University at the NUS Demonstration, 24th November 2012

Students from York University at the NUS Demonstration, 24th November 2012

The build up to last week’s (Wednesday 21st November) national student march involved student organisers on campuses across the country flyering, door-knocking and social media-ing in a desperate bid to encourage students to board buses to the capital; one more attempt to confront the coalition government’s cuts to education spending and tripling of tuition fees.

Following the huge protests in the wake of the initial fee hike, and the unrest which accompanied it, culminating in the exit of shamed ex-NUS president Aaron Porter, the NUS had a fresh start and momentum from the huge displays of anger and frustration felt by students all over the country who occupied campuses as well as Tory HQ.

However, this display of widespread confrontation felt somewhat dampened, as it was followed by the uninspiring “Educate, Employ, Empower” sloganeering. Whether this phrase was put together for alliteration’s sake, I don’t know, but it reflected an attitude which appeared to amount to approaching government with a begging bowl, rather than the demands of citizens in a functioning democracy.

The main problem with such a phrase is that it is so abstract, that everyone agrees with it – no democratic government would deny that it would like to “educate, employ and empower” its citizens. However, the issue of fees, cuts and corporatisation aren’t in any way addressed by such a phrase. This is the issue that students and the government disagree on, and this is the reason people marched on Millbank. This phrase didn’t water down the message of the student movement, it removed it from the agenda altogether, thus alienating those who had attended previous demonstrations – but obviously pleasing those in power.

The next issue was the route. On the day of the protest, I was running late, so decided to head into central London to find the demo. I assumed it would be fairly easy, and I’d make my way to the area around parliament, make a few phone calls, and get involved. However, walking around central London, there was no sign of the demonstration anywhere. Someone pointed me in the direction of Waterloo, and then another towards Lambeth North, which I was certain must’ve been a mistake.

To my amazement, the NUS had organised a rally in Kennington Park, about as far away from the “centres of power” as it is possible to comfortably walk. The local residents looked on in bemusement, and the howling wind and rain only added further frustrations to the seemingly lost marchers.

Upon arrival at Kennington Park (which could easily have been in Milton Keynes), the usual speeches of self-congratulation/absorption ensued. Like naughty kids who had been banished from the playground, the only chance of direct action would be the occupation of a nearby tree or bench.

This of course, was fully understood by both the NUS and ministers when they colluded to march students away from the direction of government. The problem, of course, being that when many members of the NUS meet with senior ministers, they may be going in to represent students but they often end up representing their future careers, making valuable contacts and doing important favours to pave the way into their good-books. Previous NUS Presidents have gone on to become Labour councillors, and of course, £125-an-hour university consultants.

In isolation, we could  attribute the lack of support for the NUS demonstration as being down to the defeat on the vote on top-up fees following the last demo, and the horrendous weather. However, the following Saturday, thousands marched through similar conditions in solidarity with Gaza, a campaign which has had its fair share of defeats to say the least. That demo, at least, had the balls to march from Downing Street to the Israeli Embassy, at relatively short notice, and make real demands of the UK government relating to its foreign, diplomatic and economic policies.

The demands of the students at the rally in Kennington Park, on the other hand, mainly involved shouting abuse at NUS representatives, holding banners encouraging people to ‘Smash’ the NUS and culminating in eggs being thrown, and the stage being rushed by students angered by the lack of confrontation and conviction of the current administration.

The approach of the NUS comes in stark contrast to that of the students of Quebec, Canada, who organised demonstrations in front of government offices, the blocking of roads, direct action and mass strikes. This led to the student movement making huge gains, ultimately overturning the government’s fee hike. No such conviction can be found in the plans of the current union representing students this side of the Atlantic.

Today, a candle-light vigil has been planned by students outside the NUS Offices in Drummond Street, near Warren Street, London. They say it’s time to start a new movement, one that is willing to address the interests of students rather than pander to the whims of government.

Whether a new movement will form, or critical voices are able to emerge through the web of middle-class careerist nepotism known as the NUS elections, is unclear. But there can be no doubt that the assault on further and higher education will continue until the students are represented by individuals who are not planning to gain from centralised government power.

Adam Elliott-Cooper

Adam Elliott-Cooper, a writer and activist, is Associate Editor of Ceasefire and a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. His column on race politics appears twice a month. He tweets at @adamec87.


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Nov 30, 2012 10:47

Excellent critique. Such a classic line: “Like naughty kids who had been banished from the playground, the only chance of direct action would be the occupation of a nearby tree or bench.”

Maybe the candlelit vigil will ignite some minds..

Your average studentt
Nov 30, 2012 14:35

This is a very clear analysis of what is essentially wrong with the NUS as the only recognised face of a “student movement”. As anyone who has had any dealings with NUS politics will know, the NUS does not exist to represent all students, or all issues, but like a wealthy patron, ever careful of how it is perceived by its peers in the political arena, is selective in the issues, values and ideologies it chooses to represent and support.The NUS kids will rebel just a little, but are careful not to irk and embarrass mummy and daddy and their equally middle-class friends.

The fact is, the NUS is being recognised as the private members club it really is. There is much talk about what should be done within the NUS itself, but the committees have completely lost touch with the average student on the street, because they actually think they know better, and will not risk letting the more radical voices derail their future careers.

Students recognise this, may voting in feedback that their unions are “too political”, and so when one of these NUS rep mugs – invisible and deaf at any other time of the year – try to persuade you to get onto a bus to London or risk having your student society’s budget cut, just so they can take pictures of huge crowds and say “I organised this” – you just want to tell them to piss off.

Your average student
Nov 30, 2012 14:52

This government is running rings around the NUS because many of its members are part of the problem. Any new movement needs to be comprised of people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain.Inner-city kids with deferred dreams, stand up!

Your average student
Nov 30, 2012 15:42

Sorry for my constant posting, but this issue has me annoyed. Look at this, from the NUS website about the march:

“The National Demo will bring together thousands of students marching under one banner; Educate, Employ, Empower. Some students will have been on many demonstrations before but for others it might be there first time. This is what makes the march such an exciting event to be part of! Making sure you’re prepared before the demo will ensure that you and your students can have the best possible time on the day, so here’s some things to remember…”

Notice the key phrases: “such an exciting event to be part of”, “have the best possible time on the day”. Does this sound like the language of people with their balls to the wall? Is this the soul cry of a serious activist? Or does this smack of middle-class kids out for a day of “fun”?

I can’t talk about this anymore……I’m done.

Oxford Student
Dec 2, 2012 14:12

There is a great deal wrong with this article, not only in its propositions for action, but ore fundamentally in its underlying assumptions in the nature and stage of the student movement. The fact is that Britain is not Quebec, the momentum of our movement is at its lowest ebb for real structural reasons, not simply sloganeering or lack of effort from activists. There is no morale in the movement as 2010 was a great loss, and there is no clear goal in sight on a national basis, due to the nebulous nature of the higher education white paper. What the author is proposing is testament to the eternal problem of the ‘Left’ when struggle decreases to fight within the student movement for smaller and smaller crumbs. The question raised is how would an alternative NUS work, if that is what the proposal of the NUS vigil suggests?

The same vigil was attended by only a handful of people, are these handful of people, or even just the thousand or so student activists on the march the ones to start a new organisation in conflict with the NUS fighting for a movement that doesn’t exist anymore. Gramsci said that if keep hitting your head against a brick wall, it isn’t the wall that is going to break but your head; this is still true for the ultra-left propositions of the article.

What the student movement needs is a re-evaluation of both 2010 and its strategy. There needs to a renewal of a united front policy to all those being attacked by austerity and imperialism across the world. The author mentions the Palestinian demonstration, and that is a good start. Through solidarity for different struggles we can invigorate our own movement, instead of infighting that seems to be a common trend in the aftermath of the demo. Yes the NUS is terrible, but activists need to fight within it until the time is right to push for a real democratic national union. This can only come when the struggle becomes a great deal more full-on than it is now. For me, that is the only way forward.

Dec 3, 2012 12:22

@Oxford Student (I’m assuming to contrast yourself with the ‘Average Student’). We all know that Britain is not Canada, but the proposition of strikes or other forms of direct action haven’t even been proposed by NUS, even following the huge support during the fee hike. The article simply pointed out what was problematic, and used student movements in similar parts of the world, as well as different movements also in London (Gaza Solidarity) as frames of reference – none of these examples are of the ‘ultra left’ – they are mainstream activist and student movements taking place today.

The article a no point blames the slowing down of the movement on the slogan, although it does point out that it is problematic, and does little to re-ignite the enthusiasm of the campaign.

Your suggestions seem to be contradictory. First you say:

“Through solidarity for different struggles we can invigorate our own movement, instead of infighting”

and then say:

“Yes the NUS is terrible, but activists need to fight within it”

These contradictory suggestions are about as useful as an abstract Gramscian anecdote.

Your average student
Dec 4, 2012 16:16

@ Oxford Student “Fighting for a movement that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Precisely So for what purpose does the NUS exist?

When it has a loss of real principles, representation, support, direction and legitimacy, is it any wonder that it has become a vehicle for opportunistic careerists?

And then when the real change-makers come knocking at the NUS, they are shut outside of Drummond St, forced to picket the NUS with a “Not In My Name” type protest.


Some critical self-analysis on the part of the NUS is required.

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