A NEW AGE FOR THE STUDENT MOVEMENT: NUS ELECTIONS 2017 – ANA OPPENHEIM

The Norwich Radical was born in the student movement, and we continue to play an active role within it. We recognise that while official structures are not the sum total of the movement, they are undeniably important. After a momentous year for the National Union of Students, studying it is more important than ever for understanding the political consciousness of the student movement. 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.

Submissions are unedited, and are being published in the order we receive them. This candidate is standing for Vice President (Higher Education).

It’s no news to anyone that Higher Education is facing some of the biggest challenges we’ve seen in years, if not decades. The HE bill doesn’t just mean higher fees. Increased competition will lead to less profitable courses and departments closing down, students being treated even more like cash cows and staff working conditions deteriorating. If the government’s plans are implemented, we will see the HE sector turned into a three-tier system, where the so-called best universities are most expensive, and those that don’t fit into a very narrow definition of quality are doomed to failure. Specialist institutions like mine are likely to be worst affected.

Let’s add to this the challenges posed by Brexit – uncertainties over research funding and the fee status of EU students, as well as the continuous attacks on international students (and all migrants, for that matter.) And let’s not forget that our education system is still rife with structural inequalities, with a persistent gender pay gap, institutional racism and ableism shutting students out of education, and working class students struggling with ever-increasing costs of living and studying, on top of tuition fees, and ever-diminishing support.

Credit: Ana Oppenheim

In some sections of NUS, it’s still common to hear someone say “I’m here for students, not for politics.” But that’s a deluded position to take when political decisions are affecting students’ lives every day. To face these attacks and challenges, we need a union that isn’t afraid to say what it stands for, to be confrontational and disruptive when it needs to, to find allies and unlock the power of our movement.

I came to NUS through activism on and off campus – from co-founding the Intersectional Feminist Society at my university and organising for reproductive justice, to being involved in a successful living wage campaign for outsourced staff, spending weeks in an occupation against cuts to Foundation courses and mobilising students to defend migrants’ rights. I know that change doesn’t just happen because of charismatic individuals in positions of power, but thanks to the often unglamorous daily work of volunteers organising collectively.

That’s why I believe in the student movement and what we can achieve. But having spent a year on NUS NEC, I know it can be a frustrating place. Organising happens in cliques based on friendships not ideas. Radical slogans are often not backed up by action. There is a lot of talk about unity, but in too many cases it means “shut up and follow,” not “let’s openly talk about disagreements and work together where we agree.” We must be able to honestly debate our goals and strategies, and take action regardless of how it will look on our CVs.

Credit: Ana Oppenheim

I’m standing on a platform of:

1. Opposing the Higher Education reforms as a whole, as an ideological attack on public education. To win, we need a strategy – from lobbying to maintain and build the NSS boycott, campaigning locally against universities submitting to TEF 2, organising local and national protests, working closely with UCU and developing our own concrete alternatives to marketisation.

2. Putting liberation at the heart of the campaign, centering the voices of oppressed groups. I will work with all five NUS liberation campaigns to tackle attainment gaps, fight for a curriculum that represents us, make our universities more accessible and keep up the pressure against Prevent.

3. Defending international students. In the time of Brexit and the rise of the far right, standing up for migrants cannot just be left to the International Students’ Campaign but be a priority for the whole of NUS. I want us to be a leading voice that stands up for freedom of movement, as well as helping SUs to fight for international students locally, from campaigning to freeze international fees to securing scholarships for refugees.

4. Standing in solidarity with workers. Trade unions are our greatest allies in the battles we’re facing – from defeating the HE reforms to ending Prevent, we need to unite our efforts. Staff working conditions are our learning conditions too, so it is in our interest to take a stand against casualisation and pay inequality in universities. I will also help build fair pay campaigns for postgraduate students who teach.

5. Opening up NUS, reaching out beyond narrow cliques of sabbs and getting serious about building a mass democratic movement. I will develop our activist training to make sure it’s accessible to students and gives activists on every campus the tools they need to run effective campaigns. I’ll work with and give platforms and resources to grassroots campaigns.

Our movement isn’t just about individuals and the most important work happens outside of NUS headquarters and conference centres. There’s a hell of a lot to do, but electing me would be a pretty damn good place to start.

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