At this year’s national conference of the National Union of Students (NUS), held in Liverpool between 8th-10th April, three delegates from the Marxist Student Federation (MSF) made an intervention with a fringe event on capitalist crisis and education, by distributing a bulletin spreading Marxist ideas, and by selling the Socialist Appeal newspaper. Through this action we were able to meet a number of students enthusiastic about learning more about Marxism, many of whom were at Further Education colleges.

[For a rolling day-by-day analysis of what happened at the NUS conference 2014, visit the Marxist Student live updates]

Marxists denied a voice

Marxist Student delegates were hoping to speak at the conference; however, it is extremely difficult to get up to to the podium to speak as the majority of the motions and amendments are pre-allocated to specific speakers. Furthermore, in a room full of around 600 delegates, there is obviously a lot of competition to be heard.

This problem would have been solved had the amendments passed at Sheffield University Students’ Union been put to conference, guaranteeing Marxist Student delegates the floor. However, these demoncratically agreed motions were not sent by the SUSU to the NUS, and thus the Marxist Student delegates were denied a platform.

Had our motions been presented at the NUS conference, the MSF delegates hoped to speak about the attacks to education and privatisation of education that students are currently experiencing, pointing out that these measures are not the consequence of an ideological attack from the Tories, but are a consequence of the crisis of capitalism which is forcing the capitalists to search for new avenues of profit such as education.

For free education

Positively, conference voted in favour for a motion proposing free education, with 280 votes to 231, which resolves to ‘Reject the absurd idea that our society lacks the resources to provide decently for its citizens.’  Furthermore, the motion advocated, ‘Taking the banks, and their wealth, under democratic control,’ a fantastic move in favour of a socialist attitude concerning how we should redistribute the wealth of society, yet failing to mention nationalisation of industry, instead proposing to tax the rich.

Marxist Students pointed out that whilst taking the banks under democratic control is a progressive step, it is also necessary for workers and students to control the means of production within society in order to fund education, and not to simply attempt to reform or regulate capitalism, which can easily be avoided by the accountants of the bourgeoisie, as currently happens through tax avoidance and the movement of capital.

Against zero-hour contracts

However, conference also defeated a motion to support ending zero-hour contracts. The discussion on this motion was largely dominated by the right arguing that students benefit from the flexibility offered by zero hour contracts, ignoring their wider use in society. Hundreds of thousands of workers are subjected to such exploitative contracts, including postgraduate students, who are themselves members of the NUS.

Arguments against zero-hour contrasts focused on the effect of zero-hour teaching contracts which ‘made budgeting impossible’ for students who are not guaranteed teaching hours to support them through their postgraduate degrees.  Both of these arguments failed to point out that we should link this motion to a campaign for a living grant for all students, which would remove the necessity of work for all students and thus render useless all arguments against ending zero hour contracts. The fight for a living grant for all students is a key demand of the MSF.

Fair representation

In addition to this disappointing move by the NUS was their decision to vote for ‘Fair Representation’ – that is, a quota for women delegates to NUS National Conference, a move designed to promote gender equality by guaranteeing female students a place at conference regardless of their politics.

Marxist Students voted against this motion, understanding that it is the sexist prejudices and material conditions inherent in class society that causes male dominance of unions, not the male dominance of student unions, trade unions, political parties or other mass organisations that fuels the oppression of women.

In fact, this motion for gender quotas could be counter-productive to eradicating gender inequality by forcing fighting Marxist students proposing bold socialist policies out of the NUS simply because of their gender.  Working class activists who stand for the eradication of all oppression through the eradication of class society are not exclusive of either men or women, yet this policy could now block out class fighters from working within the student movement at the NUS National Conference. As one of the female candidates for the National Executive Committee pointed out, smaller unions, particularly FE college unions, can only afford to send one delegate which will now have to be a female delegate, or a female observer no matter what they advocate.

Political involvement

There was a huge emphasis on student involvement in the upcoming general election from the NUS leadership, with policy passed that focuses on getting students registered to vote and pushing for a high student turnout at the polls in 2015. However, this fails to acknowledge the reason for the youth’s disengagement with electoral politics. Students and young workers have been let down by government and ignored by the major parties, who offer nothing to the youth other than further cuts and austerity. These attacks are pushing young people out of education and into zero-hour, low paid, dead end jobs. What is the point in having a huge student turn out to vote for such parties?

The NUS should be demanding that the Labour Party puts forward socialist policies to nationalise the banks and big business under democratic workers’ control, in order to expropriate their wealth and use it to fund free education, a living grant for all students, and decent non-for-profit housing. Such demands should be made alongside those for better welfare support for workers, allowing a decent standard of living for everyone, as opposed to the few bourgeois fat-cats who get the cream whilst everyone else is left to fight for the scraps and crumbs not yet hoovered up by capitalist austerity measures.

Students and workers: unite and fight!

Furthermore, conference also voted down a motion for a national demonstration on the grounds that a demo for the sake of it is pointless.  This is true; however, there are plenty of reasons why students should be out on the streets demanding better from the government and the motion should have outlined these reasons and advocated for joint action with workers’ unions in order to demand socialist policies from the political parties that the NUS leadership are so eager to get students to vote for.

Very little is achieved at conference, with much time being spent listening to election manifestos and procedural motions.  It is astounding that delegates are expected to have read and remembered all of the motions and amendments before extremely short speeches and a vote are made, and yet there are five minutes set aside for each full time officer candidate to discuss their manifestos. Surely delegates can read this for themselves too if the same is expected for the motions?

NUS conference’s time would be much better spent debating motions rather than listening to Toni Pearce (the current NUS President) & co. list their ‘successes’ that supposedly make them eligible leaders of the student movement.  On account of this, only one motion was discussed in the Society and Citizenship Zone whilst, disgracefully, not a single motion was debated in the Development Zone, which was cut short (admittedly to give more time to other zones), but what little time was left to the zone was spent deciding whether or not conference wanted to hear yet another procedural motion.

For a fighting socialist programme!

With all of this in mind it is no wonder that very few students are interested in the NUS, with less than 20% of students voting for delegates at their own institutions.  The NUS does very little for its members, who are currently experiencing an unprecedented attack on living standards and education as a consequence of the government’s marketisation of education, due to rip-off landlords, and on account of the rising cost of living. What is needed from the NUS is not equivocal motions, empty electioneering and endless wrangling over procedural points, but a clear, coherent and bold argument for socialism as a solution to the problems faced by students.

That is not to say that students should abandon the NUS for its lack of a fighting socialist perspective.  Instead, we must fight within it to transform it into an organisation that fights for socialist demands for students, uniting with the labour movement and supporting industrial action, which this years’ conference has taken a step towards with a motion that backs TUC industrial action and striking staff on campuses.

Despite all its faults and the betrayals of the past, the NUS still holds a position of authority in the student movement. Any action called or policy passed by the NUS has a much greater echo among students than anything that a small organisation on the edge of the student movement could possibly achieve. It is for that reason that the Marxist Student Federation intervene in the NUS in an organised way, to win it round to socialist policies.

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