NUS conference 2018: what kind of leadership does the NUS need?

This year the NUS conference is taking place in the midst of some of the most militant industrial action for many years on university campuses, while we have a Conservative government that constantly teeters on the brink of collapse, and following a wave of developing political consciousness amongst young people. At a time like this, we would hope and expect that the NUS conference would be ready to act in solidarity with university and college workers, to mobilise the student population in support, and work to push the government over the edge.

Unfortunately, this year’s NUS conference instead was opened by the spectacle of the current leadership giving speeches congratulating themselves for the many reviews, investigations and commissions they had conducted over this past year. This struck me as strange. If I asked my fellow students at UCL whether they shared the NUS leaders’ delight about all these reviews, investigations and commissions, the reaction would either be confusion or indifference.

The NUS leaders seemed very pleased with how much paperwork they’d been able to generate this year, but in fact all that time, effort and money has had no real impact on students at all. Why? Because a review into rising rents and increasing pressure on students can only conclude that more and more students are struggling with poverty and poor mental health. In other words, the NUS leaders have spent an entire year launching investigations to discover things we already know, instead of organising a serious struggle against them.

We were told by the current NUS president about how the NUS leadership is entering the “corridors of power”. By which she means she’s spent the last year running around after politicians, asking them nicely to think a bit about students from time to time. This is a scandal. What the student movement needs is not an NUS that lobbies a Conservative government but one that can take action to bring it down.

The NUS president barely paid lip service to the lecturers striking in for their pensions and against the marketisation of higher education, just as the NUS also offered little support during the strikes. In fact the students joining picket lines and occupations did so independently and not due to the NUS.

All this is not to say the NUS cannot play a role in leading the student movement, only that it has failed to do so. By focusing on small student discounts and Ianucci-esque petty politics it has alienated students and held back the student movement. Instead we need our union to organise a national mobilisation of students against marketisation, against the Tories, and against capitalism.

by Sam Tollitt, UCL NUS delegate