Cross-posted from anticuts.com
By Sacha Ismail and Kate Buckell
(Sacha Ismail is an activist in the socialist organisation Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and was previously the AWL’s Student Organiser. Kate Buckell was Chair of the Campaign for Free Education and a member of NUS executive in the mid-late 1990s; in 1998 she came within fifteen votes of being elected NUS President on a CFE-led United for Free Education slate.)
The Blairite NUS leadership dropped free education policy in the 1990s and helped smooth the way for the original introduction of fees. And more recently NUS leaders refused to fight against increases in fees in 2004 and 2010-11, when such a fight led by NUS could have beaten the government.
NUS supported free education – no fees, tuition-funded taxation and a living student grant – until 1996, when it ditched the policy in order to clear the way for the shortly-to-be-elected Blair government. (The NUS President at the time was Jim Murphy, now the Blairite MP who attacked Unite for alleged “bullying” over the contrived Falkirk controversy.)
Most shocking was not that NUS dropped the demand for tax-funded tuition. It also supported – actively and openly supported – the Blairites’ abolition of student grants (which were later reintroduced). This is hard to believe, but true.
It did not happen without a fight. Left activists in the student movement formed the Campaign for Free Education (CFE), which succeeded in defeating the leadership’s first attempt to drop free education policy at a special NUS conference in 1995.
In 1996-99, CFE stepped into the void created by NUS’s betrayal, winning the support of dozens of SUs and organising several national demonstrations, a wave of direct action and, after fees (which were then paid upfront) were introduced, an attempted national non-payment campaign. NUS opposed and denounced all this.
As a result of revulsion and revolt against New Labour’s attack on students and NUS’s collaboration with it, there was a wave of left opposition inside NUS for several years. CFE maintained a strong presence on NUS national executive, won the full-time National Treasurer position and formed the leadership of NUS Women’s Campaign and (as was) LGB Campaign. In 1998 and 1999 the United for Free Education NUS election slate the CFE organised with the SWP and other left forces came extremely close to winning NUS President – in 1998 it lost by only 15 votes out of something like 1,200 cast. (The newly formed “Student Broad Left” group stood against the UFE slate, winning 87 votes for President, with its transfers splitting evenly between UFE and Labour Students.)
Under external and internal pressure, NUS shifted its policy a bit to the left. It started organising national demonstrations again in 2000. This once it was too late and it could mobilise some opposition safely.
In 2002, CFE succeeded in pushing through policy against a graduate tax and in favour of tax-funded tuition. In 2003, it won back support for living, non-means-tested grants – something not won at this year’s conference and a demand which needs to be explicitly taken up. The background was the upsurge of student struggle in opposition to the Iraq war.
However, student politics then entered a long depression, running until 2009 – and there was no substantial organised left force to fight for NUS’s policy to be implemented. By 2003-4, CFE was degenerating into a clique of “left” NUS bureaucrats – one of them, Kat Fletcher, was elected president in 2004 and almost immediately began functioning as a full-blown Blairite – and by 2005 it ceased to exist altogether. The Education Not for Sale, group founded at the end of 2005, was on a much smaller scale. The Socialist Workers Party and its fronts became more of a force in NUS, but typically acted in a manner combining opportunism and sectarianism, weakening the left.
NUS’s restored free education policy was barely mentioned publicly, let alone campaigned for – and by 2005 it had been explicitly dropped.
In 2004, when New Labour raised tuition fees to £3,000, NUS organised almost literally no campaign – even though on paper it still supported free education. The government majority was only five votes, so clearly NUS’s failure was decisive.
In a roundabout, indirect way, the vote at this year’s NUS conference is a result of the revival of 2009-10, the mass student struggles of 2010-11, the generally higher level of student activism since then, and the smaller upsurge at the end of 2013 and start of 2014. In the battles of 2010, of course, no one called for a graduate tax, except the isolated NUS leaders! Free education was the universal demand of the movement.
What is crucial is that, compared to 2003, there is an organised student left better prepared to fight for the policy, including the NCAFC.
In the run up to the general election, the victory in NUS has opened the way to launch a real campaign for free education and at the very least make substantial gains for students. What is required is both serious pressure on NUS and a movement willing to organise action independently when it won’t.