Amatey Doku at NUS Conference 2018NUS UK

Last week I attended the National Union of Students (NUS) Conference as one of six Cambridge delegates. It was a deeply dispiriting experience, characterised by inaction, bureaucratic absurdities, and political sabotage. It is a testament to the hard work of some committed activists that anything was achieved at all.

Let’s start at the top. The discourse of ‘real change’ and ‘diversity of tactics’ used by the NUS centrist leadership signified an anti-politics stance: a belief that structural change is either impossible or undesirable, and that unions can merely alleviate the pain inflicted by Tory governments. In this picture, activists and the radical change they fight for are implicitly ‘unreal’, that is to say, fantastical.

Thus, instead of building on NUS policy for free education through demonstrations, boycotts and reports, National President Shakira Martin and Vice-President (VP) for Higher Education Amatey Doku tried (and failed) to gain a seat on the government’s ‘market regulator’, the Office for Students. The vice-president for welfare lobbied for housing reforms while distancing herself from rent strikes. The aim at every stage is to keep power in the hands of the bureaucracy, while curtailing that of student activists.

This is an exciting time for higher education. We can win on free education and marketisation, and bring about a democratic and liberated higher education system.

Both democracy and collective student power are inimical to the ideology of the NUS leadership, particularly its leader, Martin, who has failed to demonstrate these values amid bullying allegations and her refusals to implement democratic policy.

But the organisation’s defects extend beyond any one individual. The NUS conference is a snakepit of factionalism, in which those not in-the-know and not in the WhatsApp groups are both clueless and irrelevant. It is natural that people with similar political aims organise to win. But the delegate system engenders ‘cliqueyness’, backroom deals and anti-democratic tendencies.

When it came to debating and voting, I witnessed breath-taking scenes of bureaucracy. The welfare zone was a prime example. Sixteen motions were proposed from students across the country, on issues from sexual violence to housing. The chair, however, thought it appropriate to spend the entire time debating one single motion, apparently forgetting conference’s own rules, meaning a time extension became invalid. Over 150 students were forced to stage a sit-in on the stage to ensure a vitally urgent motion on Northern Irish abortion rights was addressed.

More insidious still were the procedural motions which arrived every time we got near discussing anything radical, from democratic universities to supporting student sex workers. Consequently, the right-wing was able to prevent motions it didn’t like from even being discussed, including, incredibly, the UCU strike. Along with the welfare débâcle, just five education motions out of fourteen were voted on. This is not what democracy should look like.

That doesn’t mean we should walk away – our strength as students lies in our collective power. The NUS liberation campaigns remain a source of great support for marginalised students across the country: the Women’s Campaign has done vital work on sexual violence; the Black Students’ Campaign has been co-ordinating the fight against the Prevent duty; and the LGBT+, Trans and Disabled Students’ Campaigns have been doing much more besides, not to mention the International and Postgraduate Campaigns.

Nor should we condemn conference out of hand – such a huge democratic undertaking is complicated, and we should be proud of having the largest democratic student organisation in Europe.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the NUS needs fundamental reform. Many on the left point to the anti-democratic tendencies of the NUS right, who use every tool in the box to stifle debate and inhibit support for grassroots organising. From here arises the belief that if the left won the leadership then all the NUS’s problems would go away.

Undoubtedly that would help – while in office Shelly Asquith majorly politicised our conception of welfare, linking it to financial precarity and structural oppression, and supporting student activists fighting both. But it is not the whole solution.

Building an NUS fit for purpose also means students across the country organising for a root-and-branch governance & democracy review of the organisation, especially the conference. It means an overhaul of NUS’s pitiful communication and engagement with students. And we should be bold enough to argue for a One Member One Vote system for elections. If the left-wing wants a grassroots union then it should have the confidence that our ideas can win.


Mountain View

NUS Conference 2018 – everything you need to know

We shouldn’t just wait around for a revitalised NUS – progress is at least a year away. The government is on the backfoot on higher education, raising student loan repayment thresholds and undertaking a tuition fee review. This wasn’t the result of the NUS leadership’s sycophancy. Rather, it came from Labour’s extraordinary revitalisation at the General Election on a platform of free education.

It is local student activism, always without the support of Martin, Doku & co, which has forced UUK into some humiliating climbdowns, and struck a huge blow against marketisation. In Cambridge and nationwide, free education, rent and divestment campaigns are making huge headway largely without the support of the NUS.

This is an exciting time for higher education. We can win on free education and marketisation, and bring about a democratic and liberated higher education system. And we can do all that without an increasingly bureaucratic and irrelevant NUS. Student power starts with us.