Sabotage, racism and walkouts – NUS needs to take radical action

The National Union of Students (NUS) is sharply divided. The election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President at the last national conference of the union was heralded as a victory for the “Left”. The NUS has since held a joint demo with the UCU union and come out in support of rent strikes. But those who want to build the NUS into an organisation that fights for students are finding their way blocked by a layer of students who want an ‘apolitical’ NUS and who are perfectly content to wallow in the union’s bureaucracy.

A clear illustration of this is being played out at the moment. A number of union bureaucrats, headed up by members of Labour Students (for example Emily Horsfall, the Union Development and Democracy Officer at Keele Student Union), have pressed for the NUS to take a ‘risk assessment ballot’ on the planned action to sabotage the National Student Survey. The sabotage was voted for by the 2016 NUS conference as a tactic to bring down the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework, the results of which will justify attempts to further integrate the market into higher education by awarding funding based on (largely inaccurate) results.

Those who have no interest in fighting the government to defend students’ interests are opposed to the sabotage of the NSS, even though it was voted for democratically by the NUS conference. This absurd demand for a “risk assessment”, if it is pushed through, will effectively derail the NUS’s attempt to fight the marketisation of education.

What Bouattia and those on the Left of the NUS need to do in the face of this bureaucratic manoeuvring is to use radical methods and ideas. So far, in their fight against the Right, this is what has been lacking.  For example, whilst we support the NSS sabotage as a preliminary measure, the action taken by the NUS must go much further. Simply refusing to fill in a form which, in a convoluted way, might hamper the marketisation of education temporarily can hardly be called a bold tactic. Students are suffering under the Tory government right now and the NUS needs to take radical action.

The NUS must unite with UCU to organize student and staff strikes, occupations of university buildings, and demonstrations, all backed up by a socialist programme – an end to fees, maintenance grants for all students, and the cancelling of all student debt, all funded by the expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy: for banks, universities, and colleges to be placed under the democratic control of committees of workers and students. With this programme, the vision of a future education system can be put into action – one which places the needs of students and staff above the profiteering of unaccountable elites.

If the NUS leadership were to take this line, and build a movement on this basis, bureaucratic right-wing manoeuvring about risk assessments and suchlike would be blown out of the water.

Another dispute that is taking place in the NUS at the moment illustrates the same point. A few weeks ago there was a walkout of black students from a meeting of the NUS National Executive Committee meeting. The NUS Black Students’ Officer Adam Muuse co-ordinated the walkout and cited “a century of institutionally racist practices” bringing them to “breaking point” as the cause of the walkout.

This isn’t the first time this issue has been raised in the NUS. During her tenure as Black Students’ Officer Malia Bouattia pointed out the racism which she and other students had faced from inside the NUS, leading to a review being commissioned with the Runnymede Trust. Last week saw details of the Racism Review released publicly. It concluded that while students have had to face “serious failings” on behalf of the NUS, Runnymede Trust was “not able to conclude definitively that NUS is institutionally racist”.

There can be no doubt, however, that black students within the union have faced abhorrent racism. In an economic, social and political system which encourages division in order to weaken any real challenges to the status quo, racial discrimination is prevalent. Among students and workers, for example, it’s convenient for the ruling class, through their media and their economic power, to paint a picture of competition, of particular groups ‘stealing jobs’ and taking university places, as a way to divide the movement and distract from society’s real problems. This has become so deeply rooted in capitalist society that even supposedly liberal bastions of free thinking such as the NUS can’t be immune from it.

But the row over racism runs deeper. It’s no secret that the black caucus of the NUS tends to be more radical and left-wing than other parts of the NUS. This isn’t surprising because it’s young black people who feel the sharp end of capitalism to the greatest extent. Racism and oppression are rife, and austerity disproportionately impacts black people. In the fight for a more radical NUS, black students in particular come up against the ‘apolitical’ right-wing layer in the union.

Above all the recent walkout indicates a political divide in the NUS. The Racism Review, which was also commissioned to investigate anti-Semitism, of which none was found, has exposed two primarily political ‘factions’. On 12th December Wonkhe, a higher education think tank, published a briefing in which they wrote “the union is increasingly torn between politically moderate factions which accuse their opponents of anti-Semitism and more radical factions which respond with their own accusations of racism. Few if any players seem able to bridge the deeply-felt divide, probably the most fractured NUS has been in decades.”

As with the NSS sabotage we support the walkout action against oppression and union apathy. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Behind the scenes protests and walkouts, or an internal review of NUS structures, isn’t the way to engage thousands of students in the fight against racism, oppression and capitalism. Backroom changes at the top of the organisation won’t materially improve conditions for the vast majority of black students.

The Black Students’ Campaign holds within it a fantastic potential to realise societal change. It has identified and is drawing attention to the oppression faced by black students, in the same way that a doctor identifies symptoms of an illness. But as with any disease, the underlying cause of the symptoms must be eliminated in order to make a meaningful change. The Black Students Campaign, and the whole NUS, must fight to fundamentally change the fabric of society, and to destroy the system which propagates racism, division, violence and crisis. In response to the Racism Review, an NUS spokesperson said that the NUS “must dismantle structures and processes that have allowed racism to thrive” – a sentiment with which we agree. The solution is the socialist transformation of society for which the NUS has to fight, with mass engagement of students on the basis of radical policies.

It’s not surprising that a divide between the conservative union bureaucracy and the more radical layers in the union is appearing so clearly in the student movement. Student politics has a tendency to be a barometer for the rest of society, to act as an indication of the struggles which lie ahead. The student-led demonstration which initiated the Hungarian revolution in 1956; the university occupations which lit the spark of May ’68; the student strike at Athens Polytechnic in opposition to Papadopoulos’ military junta: all such struggles tapped into a rapidly developing consciousness, and spread thereafter to become a wider struggle.

The same fault lines we see in the NUS are present in society as a whole – in every working class organisation from political parties to trade unions. As the crisis of capitalism intensifies there will be battles between those who want to fight for their future and those who cling to the status quo. Ultimately this is the fight between reformism and revolution. It’s our job to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all those struggling for a better world, and to argue that we can only guarantee victory with socialist ideas and radical methods.

by Ross McKendrick, Swansea NUS delegate 2016