NUS Conference goes online: Organise to rebuild the student movement

by Tom Costello

This year's National Union of Students conference has taken place under exceptional circumstances. Due to the ongoing escalation of the Covid-19, plans for it to take place in Liverpool between 31 March-3 April were shelved, instead opting for a two-day online arrangement.




Of course, this was necessary. But it must be noted that the way this was done shows a lack of internal democracy inside the NUS. Many delegates were disappointed to find out that, rather than taking place over an online conference app like Zoom, the conference had been designed so that little to no actual democratic discussion could take place. Delegates were given the right to elect national officers after watching a series of pre-recorded videos on Youtube. Shockingly, 'attendees' were simply told to get together with friends to host their own debates online!


This was also seen in how policy proposals were handled. Many proposals from the NUS leadership, for instance that online exams for undergraduate students and an extension of study for postgraduate students were correct. This is a small step that would nevertheless go towards addressing the disadvantages faced by working-class, disabled and international students, many of whom would be incapable of sitting their exams from home. But this would also have to be twinned with a campaign to end marketisation and for a joint struggle of students and workers for democratic control of Higher Education. This stage-managed 'conference' allowed for no such discussion to be had.


Effect of last year's reforms


For the last decade, union democracy in the NUS has come under assault from numerous right-wing leaderships. But the most drastic attack so far took place at last year's conference, where at the last minute, the NUS officialdom announced that the union was facing a £3 million financial deficit. In response, they put forward a 'reform motion' which represents a step towards the further hollowing-out of the NUS' democratic structures. It proposed to sack 54 members of staff, reduce the 20 elected national positions to just 13, along with scrapping the elected 'Block of 15' (NEC).


Supporters of Socialist Alternative at last year's conference strongly opposed these measures, speaking and voting against them. We recognised the results it would have for student participation in the following years. Unfortunately, since passing, this year's event proved us correct.


“Reconnecting and healing”


It is ironic that, during this conference, the NUS' presidential team issued a statement calling for a process of “reconnecting and healing”, addressing the issue of “membership dissatisfaction”. It is certainly true that there is widespread dissatisfaction from students towards the NUS. This is reflected in the last few years seeing a spate of disaffiliation from local Students' Unions from the national body.


Disappointingly as well, almost all of this year's candidates for national presidential positions, with the exception of the left candidate for VP HE Maisie Sanders, have had little-to-nothing to say about the need for student-worker solidarity in the aftermath of the latest round of heroic UCU strikes, linking this to the need to decisively end marketisation with a fighting student movement, linked up nationally and democratically organised. Beyond a few token gestures and tweets, there has been zero presence from the NUS nationally on the ground. No initiative was taken to direct Students' Unions towards organising a student presence on the UCU picket lines. No effort was made to educate students about the need to show solidarity with staff and boycott scab lectures that undermined the strike. The NUS could have used its resources and standing to organise regional and national demonstrations with the UCU. It was unfortunate that, aside from a last-minute hastily announced demonstration (cancelled due to Covid-19), no push was made.


This gets to the heart of the question of why students feel more disconnected from the NUS then ever. It is not because students simply 'don't care' about the political issues that affect them. Responsibility for this lies entirely on the doorstep of the leadership, which for the most part has seen itself as leaders not of a union, but a lobbying group that holds talks with the Tory government behind closed doors. This has meant that the last decade of attacks on students, from the introduction of tuition fees to spiralling rent costs have gone virtually unchallenged from the leadership. It is no surprise then that most students see the NUS as offering nothing more than a discount card to use at Costa.


Where now for the movement?


Our first demand should be that, as soon as possible, taking into account the health and safety of delegates and officers, an emergency conference should be called once social distancing rules are relaxed, to facilitate genuine discussion on how the student movement can coordinate a serious response to the Tories' lacklustre response to the Coronavirus crisis. Many will be left penniless by this crisis. Students have been forced to continue paying to landlords and letting agencies who have refused to cancel rents for the duration of the crisis. Students working on insecure and zero-hours contracts will be left without a lifeline while their fees are still demanded.


These are issues the NUS must lead struggles on as soon as possible. But if they continue to show that they are not up to this, we must organise ourselves to rebuild a genuine, fighting student movement in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.


It will still be possible, despite the lockdown and social distancing rules, to organise online meetings of student activists seeking to keep our movement alive and prepared for struggle. Mass climate assemblies should be called, gathering climate strikers, trade unionists and all those who want to ensure that a new wave of struggle for the climate against the big 100 polluters is mounted as soon as possible.


Online activist meetings should be gathered to discuss the next steps in discussing the fight against rip off rents and free education. Already existing strike support networks on campus should stay together and use this time to coordinate with groups on other campuses for a plan of action as soon as possible. Socialist Alternative will do all it can to be part of this process of rebuilding a fighting student movement that genuinely addresses the needs of students, staff and young workers alike.