The Norwich Radical was born in the student movement, and we continue to be an active part within it. We recognise that while official structures are not the sum total of the movement, they play an undeniably important part and to understand the political consciousness of the student movement, you need to, in part, look at the National Union of Students. As we move into election season for the new NUS President, Vice Presidents and National Executive Council, we contacted all candidates in those elections and offered them the space to write about their election campaigns, why they are standing and their vision for NUS.
By Ana Oppenheim
Just as I was starting my sabb year, I came across an article about the 1971 student walkout. It took place when Digby Jacks was NUS National President, and Margaret Thatcher served as Education Secretary. The latter – not exactly a fan of collective organising – issued a White Paper, calling for an opt-in system of SU membership and external control of their finances. The NUS’ response was prompt and clear: this attack on student unionism needed to be resisted by any means necessary. The movement that followed wasn’t without its internal disagreements about goals and tactics, but it managed to unite over 350,000 students who took part in regional and national demonstrations, and finally went on a five-week strike. The disastrous proposals were crushed by radical action.
This is just one of the many stories that show NUS at its best: exciting, unapologetic and ultimately successful. One that is truly a movement: clear in its priorities, bold in its tactics, and engaging students from all across the country. One that is unafraid of criticism, because it hasn’t forgotten who it represents.
I want to be proud of NUS. I love the idea of an organisation led by and fighting for students, and I’m genuinely impressed by some of the work NUS officers have done – especially on liberation and opposing the racist PREVENT agenda.
what would happen if the same energy and resources
were put into building a movement that effectively defends
students against the government’s attacks?
But too often, I leave an NUS gathering frustrated. I’ve seen elected officers go against their democratic mandates and ignore policies they don’t like. I’ve witnessed NUS sabbs undermine each other’s work, and then shut down debate by calling it infighting. I’ve heard the National President compare the NEC to the Soviet Union at an event that was meant to celebrate SUs. I’ve been to expensive gala dinners full of unelected CEOs of Students’ Unions and left wondering – what would happen if the same energy and resources were put into building a movement that effectively defends students against the government’s attacks?
I got involved in student activism when our SU, together with trade unions, launched a campaign for a living wage for all university staff. The campaign lasted for nine months and used a variety of tactics, from lobbying to creative stunts and disruptive protests. We engaged students and workers from all of our campuses, combining our skills to achieve a common goal. We won – and this experience inspired me to join and launch other campaigns I believed in, and finally to run in SU elections.
As an officer, I see myself as a full-time activist. I’ve been involved in organising die-ins, demos and occupations, and helped set up multiple political societies and campaigning groups. I always aim to work not just for, but with students. Together, we’ve achieved multiple wins on rents, divestment, mental health and more. We’ve resisted PREVENT on campus, exposed institutional racism and protested in front of Jo Johnson’s office against cuts to maintenance grans.
Various local campaigns wouldn’t have succeeded is it wasn’t for the help of national groups – such as my friends at the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. I’m proudly a NCAFC member, but I’m not in a faction to be nasty to anyone. On the contrary, what I love about student activism is collaboration and solidarity. Working on a shoestring budget and voluntarily dedicating our time, we’ve organised national demos, speaker tours, days of action, activist training and democratic conferences. We’ve supported campus groups in their struggles, and contributed to the ongoing debate about what a better education system could look like.
This is exactly the kind of thing I would like to see NUS do: inspire, unite and empower students to take collective action. At a time when public education is in crisis, we need grassroots activism to win the arguments. We also need a positive vision of a free, accessible, democratic and liberated education.
I do think we have lessons to learn from the past when it comes to building a movement. However, this doesn’t mean I’m interested in returning to Digby Jacks’ times – when despite no tuition fees, universities were dominated by rich white men. I want to see a national union that’s at the forefront of liberation and puts forward radical proposals for a fairer, more equal society. And instead of discussing how we can be more “credible” (to the right-wing press) and “respectable” (in the eyes of the Tory government), let’s talk about being more effective.