As the government formalises its plans for another rise in tuition fees, the student movement stands at a crossroads: will we force the government to backtrack, or will we descend into division?
In the past few weeks, several student unions have held referendums on their affiliation to the National Union of Students (NUS). Most have voted to stay, but we must take on board their urgent concerns about our ability to fight for students’ interests. This week, six more universities will hold ballots: Oxford, Bath Spa, Essex, York, Nottingham and Durham.
The NUS has a proud campaigning history. Many know of our role in the battle to boycott apartheid in South Africa. Closer to home, we were one of the only unions to beat Margaret Thatcher. In the early 1970s, when she was education secretary, the NUS thwarted her politically-motivated drive to weaken student unions.
That campaigning spirit is now back at the forefront of the NUS. Since I was a first-year student at art school in 2010, we have moved from condemning student activists to celebrating and supporting them. We have moved from distancing ourselves from academic staff on strike to bolstering their actions. In 2010, the NUS president urged the government to cut student grants as an alternative to raising tuition fees; now we have a president-elect who has set out a vision for universally free education. Today, as in the 1970s, the NUS is poised to build a broad coalition in defence of education.
But victories won’t come without a national, coordinated response to the government. No single student union could have forced a U-turn on cuts to disabled students’ allowance or student deportations. Working with others, the NUS did both.
In our 94 years of existence, we have strengthened students’ rights across the board. In the workplace, by increasing the apprentice minimum wage; in housing, by winning council tax exemptions for students; and in the classroom, advocating a review of the Prevent duty. Demands like these must come nationally, with the legitimacy of more than 600 student unions and 7 million members behind us, and we must now go further still.
Make no mistake, this is about more than students’ interests. The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has set out his plan to remodel higher education in the image of the free market. He wants a two-tier education system, allowing “elite institutions” to charge higher fees while starving struggling universities of funds.
Meanwhile, our academics face ever tougher pay and working conditions, driving some out of the sector altogether. Just last week, they staged a strike to highlight the urgency of the situation.
At its best, the NUS has joined with others to stand up for a fairer society for all. We desperately need to recover this fine tradition. The same government that would threaten education has gone to war with junior doctors and tabled a trade union bill that undermines workers’ ability to organise collectively for their rights. Much of what we cherish in this country is at risk and we need to strengthen, not weaken, our coalition for a better society. Anything else would be shooting ourselves in the foot.
If we are to beat plans to increase student debt, we need every student union, at every college and university, to play a part: in signing statements, taking to the streets and refusing to play ball with the government’s data collection that will be used to raise tuition fees. Rather than retreating into apolitical irrelevance, we need to mobilise our members.
We will take no lessons on democracy from a government whom only 24% of those eligible voted for. We must renew and engage our membership like no leadership has done in a generation, in order to make our response as effective as possible. The last thing we need is to give the government an excuse to discredit and ignore us.
With a new leadership dedicated to returning to our campaigning roots, the future can be a bright one for the NUS. The choice facing students now is stark. In the 1970s, Thatcher’s chosen strategy to weaken student activism was to force an opt-in policy on student unions to shrink their membership. It was a clever strategy.
Now, some students risk making things easier for the government by freely choosing to leave their unions. Every vote to disaffiliate from the NUS is a gift to the government. Every vote to strengthen the NUS is a signal of our determination to defend our education.