February 9, 2011 by Rhi
According to Sunny Hundal, writing on Liberal Conspiracy, the student movement in England is essentially dead. This is because the NUS are all fighting amongst themselves, and instead of getting together with “The Left”, they’re busy calling for the head of NUS president Aaron Porter.
I’ve spent all day thinking about this, in between watching telly. I’ve basically relived my student days.
You see, I was quite the little student activist in my day. I was on the Union Council, represented Mature Students, as well as sitting on various committees and what not. And so I’ve been taking myself back there, mentally, to try and work out what has changed. The answer? Absolutely fucking hee-haw.
You see, whilst most students are busy getting pissed, missing lectures, and taking part in borderline illegal initiation ceremonies, there’s a few loons out there who get into politics. It’s deathly fucking dull. I sat through endless council meetings, listening to wannabe politicians acting as sabbaticals trying to pass motions (snork) to improve their job titles so it would look better on their CV when it came to making the party list.
I had to listen to endless NUS reps bleating on about how important the Union was when our SU tried to disaffiliate (it wasn’t – they just came and scared the ordinary students into thinking their beer prices would rocket).
I spent AN ENTIRE FUCKING HOUR OF MY LIFE whilst the LGBT and others tried to pass a motion to stop the Rag committee (headed by an astonishingly funny bloke who we nicknamed Stoner Boy) having strippers at a fundraising event.
I can prove all this, there’s records online somewhere. The only thing that made these meetings bearable was that there was occasionally alcohol at them. Much more fun when pissed.
Student politics is run by a select few people who want to be politicians. Poor Aaron is one of these people. He’s been elected on a batch of promises, rhetoric and a general belief in his own abilities. What’s actually happened is that the tuition fees debate, coupled with a general sense of injustice that the Lib Dems have shafted us all good and proper, has generated a sudden surge in political interest amongst people who normally don’t see the outside of their eyelids before 3pm on a weekday.
Aaron is suddenly being egged and shouted at. He and the Exec have been caught on the hop. Because if you look at their election speeches, it’s all about how they’re going to stop tuition fees happening. How they got 700 parliamentary candidates TO SIGN A FUCKING PETITION, as though that was going to make any kind of difference at all. I feel sorry for him. He’s the first NUS President in recent times who is actually getting a real taste of what happens when students turn to politics en masse. Because no one had any idea what they’d do if *gasp* the vote went through. Which it did. Write your name against tuition fees. OK! Didn’t work! Oh shit. What now? Uhhhhh… *blank stares* Students are actually campaigning at grassroots level. But because the NUS aren’t there giving soundbites, it’s Not As Good. Apparently. But the NUS didn’t actually support the protests in the first place. They didn’t organise them, they didn’t fund them… they just… well.. happened. So why the current divisions in the Union are going to make any more a difference to protesting than say, I dunno, Christmas holidays and January exams? I have no idea.
The “split” in the NUS isn’t a new thing. It’s always there. Arguing amongst factions isn’t a new thing – it’s been happening for years and years AND FUCKING YEARS! The NUS is just there… in the background. Students don’t really give it that much consideration. Until they do idiotic things like trying to charge £10 for a membership card to give you student discount. A card which is bought by freshers, until they realise that showing your library card gives you the same privileges and saves you the price of a Wetherspoons Curry Club meal. Durham University was the latest to have a referendum on whether to remain disaffiliated to the NUS. In 2001, their delegate presented this report of the NUS National Conference to their Council. It’s entitled “The Crock of Shit” Conference Report. I read it, and as well as laughing like a drain, I found myself nodding along. I’ve been to these conferences. It’s JUST like that.
So no, the student movement is not dead on its feet. It’s just that recent events have shown the NUS to be the toothless wonders that they’ve always been. The NUS is not the mouthpiece for the student movement. It’s a union made up of wannabe politicians, elected by other wannabe politicians, who “lobby” Westminster with the vague notion of being heard, not because they want to make a difference, but because one day they hope to be there, and so they want to get their faces known ASAP. Unless you’re looking at what the union represents to the majority of its students, you can’t really use the infighting (which is actually part of it’s “debating society” charm) as a barometer of the implosion of the movement. Whilst student politicians debate motions and vote on procedure, actual real people-type students fight cuts in their departments with sit ins, march through their towns in support of local services, and lobby local representatives on what they’re doing to safeguard futures. You don’t need a constitution to mobilise a protest march. There’s no quorum on a sit in.
Whilst bloggies sit around pondering policy, wanting unity and leadership and purpose, the rest of us are just getting out there and campaigning on local issues at grassroots level. Because that’s what people care about. THINGS THAT MATTER TO THEM. Shit that’s important. Representation isn’t happening through electing spokespeople right now – we tried doing that, and then Clegg got into bed with the Tories. Right now, feet on pavements, arses on floors and words on placards are what people feel will make a difference. THAT’S what’s differenced between today and when I was a student. More people actually care. That makes me happy.