A contribution from the Autonomous Student’s Network on the inherent problems with student organising within hierarchical union structures and on some alternatives for militant student/worker organisation.
The National Union of Students (NUS) is designed to filter, control, pacify and compromise the student movement. It is a way of disempowering students trying to fight together for radical social change and for defending and extending the right to knowledge and education for all.
Within the union, energy has been directed at struggling against right-wing bureaucrats for control of the union, instead of organising as students to fight the battles we need to win. The union’s hierarchical structures divide and alienate us, thereby stopping us from being an effective force for change. What happens when you run for an election? Either you win, and are set apart from your comrades, have your time wasted in pointless meetings, and through your position of authority inevitably become an obstacle for students to overcome, or you lose and continue to have no voice. The union’s democratic centralist structure means that we spend more time trying to make something ‘policy’ than actually organising around our real experiences and needs.
The recent governance review proposals, and their unwavering support from the NUS elite, is an unsurprising attack on the ‘democracy’ of NUS [see http://resource.nusonline.co.uk/media/resource/NUS_New_Governance.pdf for details]. These illustrate the extent to which the union is controlled by those who do not see its role as being to facilitate a militant collective student movement. However, the problem is deeper than just the control of the union by careerist right-wingers. These latest changes are not particularly significant in themselves, but they simply offer us an opportunity to draw attention to the inherent problems with the structures of the union. Indeed, if the union was controlled by the radical left it would still be a structure to organise the student struggle from outside of the actual experiences and struggles of us as students and, as in increasingly the case, simultaneously as workers. The very existence of the union is fundamentally in opposition to a real collective mass movement based on our real needs.
Within NUS, left-wingers have attempted to push the union to fight for some of our needs as students/workers. For example, Education Not for Sale, a left-wing faction, has argued for NUS to resume its commitment to free education and grants for all funded by taxation of the rich. They have not been very successful due to the current stronghold of the right in NUS. However, even if they had been/will be successful on this issue, as long as the power and organisation continues to takes place in the hierarchies, conference halls and offices of the union it will not actually be based on our real needs and we will not have power in deciding our own course of action.
Issues raised within the NUS, such as tuition fees, often have more political relevance to us than issues raised by campaign groups that do not focus on what’s directly affecting students/workers, but the methods possible to employ within the union do not lead to radical change. Autonomous networks, such as People&Planet, often use favourable methods, which is why they are attractive at the moment, because they offer non-bureaucratic possibilities for immediate change. Yet, such groups need to be struggling against privatisation at home! We need to develop autonomous strategies on politically relevant issues and ensure we have an analysis of class and power relations underlying our struggles, which will provide guidance, rather than working on what can often seem like campaigns pulled out of a magic hat. There are many urgent and important causes to fight for, but we have to seriously ask ourselves what more we can achieve by agitating on issues that directly affect those around us to find concrete solutions and create a critical political climate at home, which can then be a platform from which to organise around issues that are further away from home: in solidarity with other struggles, such as the occupations and strikes that started in France in November 2007 over the potential changes to laws regarding the ‘autonomy’ of French Universities.
The fact that most students in the UK would (and do) say that the union, its structures, its officers, its policies, its governance, are irrelevant to their lives, is not because those students are apathetic or unable to appreciate the situation they are facing, because of assaults such as top up fees and means testing. It is because the union is politically irrelevant. Our struggles, if they are to be meaningful and successful, must be based on our concrete experiences. The union makes decisions about what ‘campaigns’ to run based on what it thinks it can win/get funding for/get publicity from; not what we actually NEED.
Having two overdrafts because funding isn’t enough. Getting an essay in late because you had to work at your job the previous day because you need the money. Having to pay £2 a day for gas on a meter because the gas company won’t give you credit. Not being able to have a social life of any kind because there are no childcare facilities or funding at your college. Losing your deposit because your landlord treats you unfairly as landlords tend to, but not knowing what to do about it, not having the time or money to do anything about it. Running out of money three weeks before the end of term and living off bread and jam and rice through your exams because that’s all that’s left. Having to eat rubbish overpriced horrible canteen food because you don’t have any kitchen facilities despite paying over the odds captive market prices for your tiny room in halls. Not being able to get a permanent job because you have to move out of your accommodation in the holidays. Despite these sacrifices you make, suffering financial cuts to your university department and serious restrictions on one-on-one time with your lecturers.
And everything/anything else that’s actually happening in our lives. These are the things that are not irrelevant and can never be irrelevant. These are the experiences we complain about to each other over a cup of tea in the morning. And over that cup of tea is where we start to plan concrete strategies for dealing with problems and meeting our collective needs.
The last twenty five years have seen the loss of Travel Grants, Special Equipment Grants, Minimum Grants, Older Students Allowances, the right to claim housing benefit, unemployment benefits and income support during holidays, the introduction of loans, the introduction of tuition fees, the total abolition of grants - eventually reinstated on a heavily-means-tested basis, but only in order to sweeten the pill of differential top-up fees. And a lifting of the cap is well on the way unless we fight back. If we wait for the union to do something we’ll be waiting forever.
So, what can we do about this?
How about starting by talking to the people we actually share these experiences with, the students we live and sit in classes with, rather than sabbatical officers? Why don’t we start sharing our ideas with each other and organising action on our campuses/in our colleges against the actual difficulties we’re facing? A successful rent strike to force the uni to provide cookers in kitchens, an occupation to push the college/uni to provide childcare facilities, a mobilisation against our uni putting up its fees so that our younger sisters/brothers/friends can’t have access, will make more difference to us than any number of NUS conferences. As you read this, who is standing next to you? Who sleeps in the room across from yours? Who do you share your education with? Are there people who share your struggles? What can you achieve if you’re struggling together?
These leaflets have been put together by some people in London who think we need a fighting, empowered student movement that actually means something in our real lives. We have meetings to discuss and share our experiences in our different universities and colleges and to plan together. We are not an ‘organisation’, but we hope that by sharing experiences and working together we might be better able to build on the different existing struggles us and our friends are experiencing. If you’d like to know more or come to our meetings, have suggestions for things to do or responses to this leaflet or would like more copies of it, get in touch!
Email: [email protected]
Autonomous Student’s Network is based on the principles of:
3) horizontal organising and direct action.
It is a federation of groups based at different colleges and individuals, not everyone involved is a student, but the issues we focus on are often education-based. We’re keen to work with like-minded people, so get in touch if you want to struggle with us!