Special Report | Beyond NUS? Last week’s student march could signal the dawn of a new movement
New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Thursday, November 29, 2012 22:47 - 7 Comments
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.