A victory on the debt sale, or a failing NUS strategy?

This article is by SIMON FURSE, who is a student of politics and economics at the University of Birmingham and a member of NCAFC’s National Committee

The NUS have just published a blog on their website entitled “NUS secures win on the student loan book”, this sounds fantastic but if you read the article they have in fact won literally nothing.  What the blog really shows is the incredible weakness of the NUS and its often harmful effects on the student movement.

The blog explains that two NUS full time officers went for a meeting with David Willets on the 4th of September to seek assurances that the terms on pre 2012 student loans would not be changed. The minister recently wrote back giving these assurances and the so NUS have claimed victory and are pleased “that (their) pressure paid off”.  Somehow the NUS appear to have missed that these assurances were already given by Vince Cable way back in June.  Our article will cover the following points:

  1. The assurances do not really constitute a victory of any kind.
  2. The NUS is actually harming the student movement.
  3. This case is an example of the severe failures of a service-provider approach to students’ unions.

1.  NCAFC will continue to campaign on the selling off of student debt irrespective of “assurances” from government ministers because we know that government promises mean nothing. Even if we do take the “honourable” members at their word the pre 2012 loan book will last 25 years, it is simply ludicrous to think that an assurance from a minister now will bind governments for all this time.

The government have confirmed they want to sell the loan book, but in order to do this, they must either change the conditions for students or offer a “sweetener”, guaranteeing the return for investors who buy the loans. At the moment they are taking the second option. However if at a later date the government wished to stop paying for this sweetener they could simply change the terms on the loans, meaning that the investors would always be receiving above the guaranteed amount, and the government would remove its liability. This means that if the loans are privatised then students and the government will be in opposition over who is paying for the profit of investors. It would take a brave person to bet that students will win this over 25 years.

What we really need in the short term is no loan privatisation, and legislation fixing the terms of the loans (just like the terms on any other loan would be fixed). The NUS even recognize this at the end of their article but not before they have claimed a victory for hollow assurances that were made publicly over three months ago. In the long term the only thing that can stop these continuous battles over student debt is free education, something the NUS has continuously failed to advocate for.

2.   The message that comes from reading the NUS’ blog is that students should stop worrying, or campaigning about the debt sell-off, because our representatives have it covered. They have used a total non-victory in a way that, either deliberately or by incompetence, actively demobilizes the student movement. This is the exact opposite of what we need, the NUS has shown time and time again that it cannot fight for our interests, which will get worse unless we organise.

The protection that we have against attacks on the conditions of our loans is not NUS bureaucrats sitting in meetings with David Willets; it is the political power of the student movement on the streets. The harder we campaign against each and every attack on our conditions, or privatisation of our loans, the less likely the government will be to attack us the next time. By telling people that everything is OK and impeding the student movement the NUS officers are making future attacks on students’ loans more likely.

3.   Claiming false or nonexistent victories like this one is a problem that cuts to the very heart of bureaucratic service-based unions. Students’ unions in the UK have become infected by a style of management that prefers a tiny or nonexistent victory that it can put in its impact reports, to the chance of winning something real. Rather than doing any real campaigning about the debt sell off, the NUS simply tell us that everything will basically be fine because they have had a private meeting with a minister, and he has repeated a three month old press release.

This is a story that is repeated in students’ unions across the country and is actively encouraged by the NUS using shallow and managerial evaluation tools like SUEI (the students’ union evaluation initiative) and promoting target based management of student unions.  In order to break out of this depressing morass of betrayal and useless “victories” we need different kinds of organisation based on genuine democracy and collective struggle. We urgently need to create this both at a national and local level.

What the student movement really needs is mass action; we should be using each and every struggle to build the movement and to have the power to create an education system on our terms.


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