This article originally appeared at www.workerspower.com
2012 was a year to forget for the Tories. It was, in the main, a year to forget for student activists as well. The first year of £9,000 fees saw a 10 per cent drop in student numbers. September saw the government try to deport thousands of overseas students from London Met. Aside from local struggles which flared up at a few universities, the winter mobilisations of 2010/11 aren’t exactly casting a long shadow outside vice-chancellors’ windows.
And what of the other 50 per cent of young people who aren’t cooped up in overcrowded lecture theatres and battling slum landlords and rip-off letting agencies? Well, over a million remain locked into the Tories’ unemployment trap. In an economy with more unemployed than vacancies, the only alternatives are the workfare schemes (where there’s no shortage of places, surprisingly) or unpaid internships.
It might seem like resistance to the Tories’ class war is flagging. This is true. The failure of the unions’ strikes to defend pensions means millions of workers are less confident that militant industrial action can deliver success. The rivalries in the anti-cuts movement, with three competing anti-cuts campaigns, make effective resistance is almost impossible. Coming into the fifth year of austerity, the fight back is stagnating.
But we aren’t beaten yet. It’s clear something has to change and students have to look at how we can take the best of our experiences in collective, democratic organisation and apply that to the wider struggles in society.
NUS – leaders who won’t lead
Since the grassroots protests and walkouts of winter 2010, the NUS has firmly reasserted its control, its right to lead – and to mislead.
Many Student Unions have dismantled their democratic structures, replacing democratic accountability with tokenistic and passive participation which is incapable of engaging more than a small minority of students –leaving decisions from grand strategy to publicity in the hands of time-serving bureaucrats who are divorced from the mass of students.
But the fiasco of the NUS’s 2012 demonstration shows that we ignore the bureaucrats at our peril. Equally, joining in the petty squabbling and factionalism of NUS conference in order to win a few positions is no long-term solution.
By drawing in students into genuinely democratic structures we can expose the undemocratic nature of ‘student democracy’ on campus. Working with sab officers where possible and against them where necessary we can start to break the stifling bureaucratic attitude which sees students as a stage army, not as conscious participants.
There is no question of ‘reclaiming’ the NUS for the students. But its peculiar character – funded and managed as a mechanism of state control, yet with leaders reliant on a relationship with students – means we should work with them where they act in our interests, yet be able to openly criticise and self-organise everywhere that they put their own careers before the needs of students.
The student movement didn’t spring out of thin air. The wave of occupations against the war in Gaza in 2009 fuelled the growth of student committees which took on the task of coordinating action against cuts and the tuition fee increase.
During the student movement, several towns organised general assemblies which represented the highest form of democratic decision-making and representation. At their best, they attracted participation from schools, colleges and organisations of students and education workers.
Many of these structures have withered, but they remain the basic tactic for collective struggle both on campus and in schools.
Our primary task is to rebuild these committees. They should have representatives from every academic department and the trade unions. It’s important that we pressure the Student Unions to submit to the democratic decisions of the general assemblies.
On campuses, the UCU and workers’ unions are fighting to defend education and save jobs. In universities, schools and colleges, students need to launch a determined struggle for democratic rights to oversee education policy, financial decisions and hold management to account.
In the fight to defend education and to increase students’ control over what we learn, committees of action should work for the widest representation, drawing in students, teachers, cleaners and other staff – all who have a common interest in defending a properly funded, accessible education system.
Unite the movement
The infighting and competition that plagues the anti-cuts movement has its echo in the student movement too. But the solution is the same.
We think all the campus and school anti-cuts groups should affiliate to a democratic, national federation. The decision by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts to allow both group affiliation and individual membership (£1) with full democratic rights is a good step forward.
NCAFC should hold a spring conference, co-sponsored with Education Activist Network, and Youth Fight for Jobs to fuse into one federation, with a common strategy for organising the defence of our education. We encourage all youth to join NCAFC and fight for this to happen – a united campaign around a strategy decided by students is the strongest basis for entering the working class struggle against Tory austerity and capitalist crisis.