by Robyn Banks

Last week students from around the UK marched through London to pressure the government into finally delivering free education. The march has become a yearly spectacle and a symbol of the importance of direct action to the student movement. This year however, the National Union of Students decided not to back the demo, claiming that putting more energy into lobbying will have a greater impact than this direct action could. This shift of attitude isn’t just found in the higher ranks of NUS; it is also becoming commonplace in more and more student unions across the country.

The demo was still a success, drawing thousands to the streets of London, but it is clear that if NUS and other SUs had taken the clear decision to back the demo then the atmosphere could have matched that of the famed 2010 demonstrations. The converse decision created a feeling of us vs them within our movement, which can only ever undermine us at a time when we need to be most united, and reinforces ideas propagated in the media that student activism has floundered since the introduction of £9k tuition fees.


A National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts banner leads the march. Credit: Simon Darwen

Direct action has always been a cornerstone of the student movement. From rent strikes to fossil fuel divestment, we have used it to change the way our campuses are run and the ways our fees are spent. However, these wins often haven’t come from our student unions or from the NUS. They have come from grassroots groups on our campuses, who have found little support from authority figures for their causes, and have had to resort to direct action in order to make their voices heard. As NUS and our SUs move towards lobbying as a primary mode of change-making, we risk these groups becoming even more isolated, facing even harder and longer campaigns. Knowing that the bodies that supposedly represent you are little more than fairweather friends, only lending support once your campaign has already succeeded, is hardly encouraging for a new campaigner.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The many examples of successful direct action campaigns show that we can not only influence our campuses as a whole but also influence the way in which our student unions play out their campaigns. When we win, we show that there is still a role for direct action in the student movement. We show that change can be made outside of meetings that happen behind closed doors over tea and sandwiches. We show that we have a significant voice that can be used in order to effect change in our society. Showing this to our university communities inspires students to not only join existing campaigns but also to start their own, and continue to pressure those in power both on their campuses and in wider society.

The time has come for student unions and NUS to return to their roots

People and Planet, and the wider Fossil Free movement, are a great example of how a direct action-led campaign can achieve all of these things. After US students started campaigning for their universities to divest from fossil fuels in 2011, a worldwide student movement quickly developed. People and Planet, a grassroots UK student organisation, became a major player in this campaign, and now fight not only for fossil fuel divestment on our campuses but also for big banks such as Barclays to divest their money from fossil fuel companies and reinvest it in renewable energies.

The time has come for student unions and NUS to return to their roots and look at the campaigns run by groups such as People and Planet, UCL Cut the Rent and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. These groups, and many many more, are successfully running campaigns that centre on direct action in order to make effective change on and off their campuses. We cannot rely purely on lobbying those in charge to achieve these ambitions.

Featured image credit: University of Sussex Students’ Union

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