NUS conference 2018: what should the NUS say about Brexit?

On the first day of the NUS conference 2018 the question of Brexit dominated the Education Zone discussions and was debated at length by delegates.

As we know, the context for this discussion is the ongoing chaos caused by last year’s Brexit referendum, which gave partial expression, in a distorted way, to the fury that many people felt against the British establishment. After years of falling living standards and attacks on working conditions, millions of people were, and still are, desperate for a way out. The Brexit campaign of arch-reactionaries like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage offered no real answers to people’s problems, but nevertheless was able to channel enough of the anti-establishment rage to win the referendum. In reality neither the Remain campaign nor the Brexit campaign offered a way forward for working class people.

What was required at the time of the referendum, and what is still required now, is a clear, revolutionary socialist alternative to the European Union and British capitalism. That’s the only thing capable of giving working class people control over their own lives, by taking the commanding heights of the economy into the democratic control of the working class in Britain, Europe, and around the world. This would be a genuinely internationalist position.

Unfortunately this wasn’t what the NUS argued for at the time of the Brexit referendum, and this perspective was not put forward at the NUS conference today. Instead there was an enormous amount of confusion on display about whether membership of the European Union was a good thing or a bad thing for students. The confusion led to delegates voting for the NUS to campaign for a second Brexit referendum and for membership of the common market.

We should be very clear: there is nothing progressive about the European Union. In recent years it has shown its true colours by mercilessly attacking the Greek working class and young people – forcing them to accept devastating austerity. Students are, of course, amongst the worst hit by this EU policy. The EU’s appalling refugee policy has led to the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea and the forced internment in modern-day concentration camps of those trying to escape the horrors of war in their home countries, war which has been stirred up in part by the imperialism of EU states. Many of these refugees are young people no different from those of us at the NUS conference this week, and yet the European Union abandons and mistreats them. Added to this is the EU’s recent support for the reactionary Spanish state as it has crushed the democratic rights of the Catalan people using laws inherited from the fascist Franco regime. This is the real face of the European Union – membership of it is not a good thing, either for students or for anyone else.

Many delegates were worried about what Brexit would mean for EU students studying in Britain – in particular that these students would be charged fees at the utterly extortionate international student rate, rather than the mildly extortionate home student rate. It’s true that tuition fees for international students are outrageously high, but the solution to that is a struggle against the marketisation of education, which has to be part of a class struggle against the capitalist system as a whole, because that’s what makes marketisation inevitable. At best, remaining in the European Union would be a sticking plaster over the gaping wound of marketisation, and even then only a sticking plaster for a relatively small number of students. Arguing that this is any kind of genuine solution to the concerns of international students is extremely misleading.

The Brexit position adopted by the NUS conference this week is confused and utopian. It’s the equivalent of burying our heads in the sand. Instead we should hold our heads up high and look forward to breaking out of the false choice between a capitalist European Union and a capitalist Britain. A socialist united states of Europe would be possible on the basis of student/worker unity across borders and against the capitalist class. The struggle of the working class and young people across the continent is picking up. The NUS could and should be at the forefront of this struggle, armed with a revolutionary socialist programme.

by Marxist Student NUS delegates