Around a hundred students from all over the UK came together this weekend to discuss the way forward for the free education movement. The general tone of conference was positive and constructive, following the upsurge in student activism this autumn. The conference included many new faces and campuses which have only come into activity recently following the national demo on November 19th, and subsequent days of action.
We planned a medium- and long-term strategy for the student movement, called more days of action, elected a national committee, and endorsed candidates to run in elections in the National Union of Students. As well as plenary sessions, we had caucuses for Liberation groups and for postgraduate, international and school & FE. There were also six workshop and skill-share sessions.
In this report:
- What conference voted for
- Election results
- NUS endorsements
- Motions and policy in full
The full text of the motions passed by conference is below. In short, conference voted to:
- Develop a long term strategy for the student movement, including
- Establishing the principle that there should be one united free education campaign in the UK
- Calling for a student strike (i.e. walkouts and protests) for the calendar year of 2016
- Producing, alongside other campaigns, academics and thinkers, a proper document about free education and what it means in different contexts
- Continue to call local free education marches on weekend days in early 2015
- Call a day of action in January around the idea of reclaiming student unions as a politicised space
- Support the Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (FACE) initiative by education workers
- Hold a national demonstration in Birmingham in term 2, targeted at Birmingham Uni and Liam Byrne, the Shadow Universities Minister
- Intervene in NUS on a principled basis, while exploring alternatives and setting up an affiliations system to NCAFC
- Ask NCAFC representatives in NUS to be more accountable to the campaign
- Use the politicised atmosphere around the general election to push free education and other left wing politics, while retaining our emphasis on radical action
- Establish a new safer spaces policy
- Hold regional organising meetings in the new term to bring together local groups autonomously inside NCAFC
- Begin to hold two democratic conferences per year, rather than just one
2. Election results
NCAFC has a national committee consisting of a Block of 14 elected by Single Transferable vote (with 40% reserved for women and gender-oppressed candidates) and reps from liberation caucuses, regions and other sections.
The new Block of 14 are:
- Deborah Hermanns, London
- Matt Myers, LSE
- Zakir Gull, Oxford
- Hope Warsdale, Warwick
- Ben Towse, UCL
- Fred Craig, Manchester
- Oktay Cinpolat, Day-Mer Community Group
- Omar Raii, UCL
- Max O’Donnell-Savage, Sussex
- Annie Teriba, Oxford
- Hannah Sketchley, UCL
- Mohammed Mumit, Birmingham
- Helena Hinkle, Birmingham
- Birmingham Defend Education (Women’s Place)
Other new reps are as follows
- Raquel Palmeira (UCL)
Black Power Caucus
- Sara Dagha and Minesh Parekh (Sheffield)
- Hattie Craig (Birmingham) and Beth Redmond (City & Islington College)
- James Elliot (Oxford), Rachel O’Brien (Birmingham) and Tanju Cakar (Sheffield)
FE and school students
- Nathan Rogers (South London)
- Tania Sauma (Manchester)
Regional reps for Scotland and London were not re-elected at this conference. Any section or region can meet up, plan action and elect reps. A caucus of education workers and PhDs also took place, but decided to postpone electing a rep.
3. NUS endorsements
For the first time, NCAFC took a vote at conference about who to endorse in NUS Presidential and Vice Presidential elections. All primaries were run with a ballot which included the option to remit the endorsement to the national committee, and the option to endorse no-one. One candidate, Deborah Hermanns, withdrew from the NUS President primary before the election. The count was conducted by the Condorcet method.
The results were:
- For NUS National President, NCAFC will support Beth Redmond
- For Vice President (Higher Education) NCAFC will support Hattie Craig
- For Vice President (Union Development) NCAFC will support Barnaby Raine
- Vice President (Society and Citizenship) was remitted to the national committee
- Vice President (Welfare) was remitted to the national committee
- Vice President (Futher Eduacation) was remitted to the national committee
4. Motions in full
The following text passed at NCAFC conference 2014
1 – Intervening in NUS
- Despite the heavily bureaucratised nature of NUS, and despite a history of betrayals by its leadership even where we have won the political arguments, we should continue to make interventions into it.
- NUS and local student unions are the only mass organisations of students. Activist groups like NCAFC and the local groups that make it up are vital, but they are a fundamentally different type of thing, made up only of those people already convinced of our goals. Though we can and should organise and take action outside unions, we can’t just completely ignore them and attempt to entirely substitute smaller groups of radicals in place of mass collective organisations.
- NUS and local unions are heavily bureaucratised. Legal frameworks, the influence of senior staff, relationships with university & college managers and government, and similar factors conspire to block radical activity and to place strong right-wing pressures on officers who get elected. So in the long-run we need to transform them – they should be participative, democratic, and founded in collective, combative action.
- We can’t transform NUS and our unions, or win things like free and democratic education, just by replacing right-wingers in the bureaucracy with left-wingers, or by diplomacy and manoeuvring within NUS structures. Instead our interventions have to be based on clear principles, and they have to be rooted in and accountable to activists on the ground.
- In the long-run, it is better to fight for our principles and our goals and find ourselves in a small minority, than to attempt to ingratiate ourselves with the circles and cliques that run in NUS and union structures.
- As a general rule, the prospect of losing a vote or losing allies should not hold us back from arguing for what we believe in.
- We are not just a faction inside NUS. Our main purposes must remain organising and building for action, and convincing people to join that fight by discussing ideas: we should not let ourselves be consumed by competing within NUS.
- To put forward policies and election candidates in NUS on the basis of uncompromising, clear principles – NUS conferences and elections should be used as platforms to promote our ideas and our goals and to challenge the bureaucratised state of the NUS and the right-wing, anti-democratic records of much of its leadership. We should not water ourselves down in the hope of slipping through into power.
- Our interventions must be accountable to the movement we are building. Therefore, when we do win NUS posts for NCAFC candidates, we expect those officers and reps to remain closely accountable to NCAFC and its members. They should report regularly to the appropriate democratic structures in NCAFC, and consult with them over what they do in post at NUS.
- In general, the job of those officers and reps is to be the voice of grassroots left activists within NUS. Of course they should use their judgement to work with other officers and reps as appropriate, but they must put a priority on advocacy of our principles and goals and on representing activists on the ground, above diplomacy and manoeuvring within the circles and cliques that run in NUS and union structures.
1A – Amendment
- Almost all of our gains and successes have been made in spite of the NUS
- NUS has betrayed us consistently on every single important issue and every single major student mobilisation during and since the upsurge in 2010.
- The problem is not the individuals who run NUS – it is the structures themselves and the form of student unionism that makes up its membership
- When NCAFC activists and leftwingers get elected to SU and NUS positions, they need stronger support and stronger accountability than they presently have in order to prevent them from becoming coopted or inactive.
NCAFC further believes
- The foundation of a new national student union requires more time for discussion, more resources and more unity on the left than we currently have.
- While there is no prospect of creating a fully-blown alternative NUS in the coming months, we should open up a discussion about creating such an alternative in the coming months. This should include the possibility of a disaffiliation campaign, and should be brought to a conference in summer.
- We should produce materials by/for elected officers on “how not to become bureaucratised/rightwing/coopted/demoralised/inactive”. Primarily, this is through being meaningfully accountable to local activist groups.
- To mandate the NC to set up a project.
- To mandate the NC to create a system of affiliations and tariffs for student unions who wish to affiliate to NCAFC now.
- To produce materials in FB3 of this amendment.
2 – NUS National Executive Committee and other committees
- That NCAFC has a number of supporters on NUS committees including the National Executive Council.
- That this presence has played a useful role in promoting left-wing/grassroots-activist/class struggle politics from within the structures of NUS, and our comrades on committees including the NEC have done many good things with it.
- That the operation of our comrades on the NEC nonetheless leaves something to be desired.
- That problems include: NCAFC supporters on the NEC failing to communicate and consult with each other and with the NC in the run up to meetings; failing to write reports before or afterwards; and ducking political fights in various ways.
- That the political problem is dramatised by the fact that there was no motion on the 19 November demonstration submitted to the 2 December NEC meeting, despite the NUS leadership’s outrageous sell out of the movement and subversion of NUS democracy – because most of our comrades would not second the motion proposed – and that it was only possible to submit an emergency motion because previously non-NCAFC people seconded it.
- That while there are sometimes tactical considerations and reasons for caution, in general we should use the NEC and similar committees to fight boldly and audaciously for our policies and politics. We owe this to the student movement; it is far more important than not pissing off right-wing and soft-left people in the NUS structures.
- To call on NCAFC supporters on NUS NEC and other committees
- To consult and communicate with each other and with the NC in the run up to committee meetings about what to submit, how to intervene, etc, and publish notifications on the website about the issues coming up.
- To publish reports on the website after every meeting.
- That none of this means that our comrades on such committees cannot hold, express and put forward different or minority positions. The point is that there should be consultation and where possible cooperation.
- That NC meetings should include a section where members of NUS committees report back.
- To call on all NCAFC supporters, whatever their position in the movement, to use it in the spirit of a bold and audacious fight for left-wing/grassroots-activist/class-struggle politics.
3 – NCAFC and the General Election
- The upcoming UK general election in May.
- That the general approach of NUS and most student union leaderships to elections is to emphasise the importance of voting and voter registration, and where concrete demands are put, this is with little real force.
- Parliamentary democracy under capitalism is far better than nothing, but it is profoundly limited, and to achieve the kind of radical changes we want to see requires more than just electoral action. Whoever is in government – even left or centre-left parties – students, the working class and oppressed groups need to organise and use direct action and industrial action to fight for our interests. Negotiation and lobbying, without leverage, are not enough.
- Too much of the student union movement either fails to recognise this or merely pays lip-service. Worse, much of our leadership, especially officers aligned to the right-wing of Labour, actively suppresses criticism and radical action in service of their personal careerist ambitions.
- NCAFC includes supporters of various electoral parties as well as supporters of none, and this breadth is a good thing. We are united by shared political goals and a commitment to democratic grassroots organising and action.
- Our priority, as the activist left of the student movement, must be to convince people to go beyond voting – to convince them that whoever is in government, we need to organise and fight. Disillusionment with parliamentary democracy is already common; what we can offer is a positive response to that disillusionment.
- It would be self-defeating to ignore the fact that elections provide a key opportunity that should not be missed – there is raised political awareness and an atmosphere of greater potential for engagement.
- To take advantage of the politicised atmosphere around the election to emphasise the following message – that while it is useful to vote, it is much more powerful to organise for action, and that whichever party or parties are in power at any level of government, it will be necessary to take combative action to secure our needs and goals.
- To push for this approach to elections within student unions and NUS.
- To continue building a combative movement for free education before and after the election, based in democratic organisation, protest and direct action. This campaign for free education should be more explicitly broadened to highlight the demand for a decent living grant to every student over the age of 16. Before the election we should be clear that we will be organising to fight whatever government is elected.
- To make a particular point of clearly highlighting and criticising the political failures and betrayals of Labour, the Greens and similar electoral parties, as it is especially important to drive a wedge against the right-wing within such organisations.
4 – The General Election and Free Education
- That the student movement should seek to use the general election to impose its demands, including free education.
- That UKIP’s racist anti-migrant agitation – and all mainstream parties’ acceptance of UKIP’s terms – will politically dominate the election period.
- To organise meetings and actions in the student movement to assert the right of international students to free education; and more generally to oppose immigration controls and anti-migrant agitation.
- To ask the NC to consult on and produce a short statement of demands to campaign around in the run up to and during the general election.
- To work with the Labour Campaign for Free Education to demand that Labour adopts free education and other student demands.
- To work with the Young Greens.
- To seek public support from all the major national trade unions (and also their youth sections) for free education and our other demands.
- To work with local groups and student unions to organise a targeted rolling program of pickets and protest against MPs.
7 – Creating Safer Spaces
Safer Spaces Policy
NCAFC will ensure that events:
- are hosted in venues as accessible as possible to the widest range of peopl
- include, where possible, a supervised quiet room
- are halted for an access break of no less than 10 minutes at the request of any one person, providing that there has not been one in the previous 90 minutes
It is the collective responsibility of all NCAFC members to ensure the following points are acted upon both during meetings/conferences/events and online on the NCAFC Loomio, Facebook page and website (where points are applicable):
- Participants should respect the facilitatory methods of the Chair and only challenge them through the appropriate structures
- Participants should not discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, sex, gender, age, sexuality, language, disability, asylum status, religious affiliation or any other structurally oppressive criteria.
- Everyone should get explicit verbal consent before touching someone, this is a part of respecting one another’s emotional and physical boundaries. Sexual harassment or sexual assault will lead to the perpetrator being banned from the premises and potential police involvement, if desired by the victim(s), will be fully supported. If you encounter any kind of harassment or assault please let us know, so that those responsible can be dealt with.
- We should avoid assuming the opinions and identification of other participants. Examples include, but are not limited to, assumptions regarding sex, sexuality, gender identity, preferred personal pronouns, neurotypicality, able-bodied status, socio-economic background, relationship model (monogamous, polyamorous etc.) and religious beliefs.
- During meetings and other related non-social events refrain from consuming alcohol or recreational drugs
- We should give one another the time and space to speak, using appropriate, understood and agreed hand signals where relevant
- We are responsible not only for our own behaviour but for challenging poor behaviour in others
- We should always be aware of the social space we occupy, as well as the positions and privileges we may be conveying, including racial, class and gender privilege. If a member of a liberation group (keeping in mind that it is possible to be oppressive whilst identifying also identifying as a part of that oppressed group) requests that you change your use of language regarding topics about their liberation, please respectfully consider their request. If you are unsure as to the reason your language was inappropriate or offensive, please politely request that the complainant explain, if they feel they are able to or are willing to with the understanding that they in no way owe you this explanation. Failing this, remove yourself from the situation and take on personal research on the matter.
- During all meetings and events there should be access breaks for a minimum of ten minutes at least every 90 minutes and/or upon request.
- NCAFC should elect a Safer Spaces working group/committee who are committed to ensuring the enacting of the Safer Spaces Policy both at events and in online organising spaces (e.g. the NCAFC Loomio , website and Facebook page).
- This working group will deal with any and all breaches of the Safer Spaces Policy, or complaints regarding it.
- The working group should be up for re-election at every conference at a minimum
- The working group should include at least one person from each liberation caucus (BME, Women’s, LGBTQ and Disabled) though other may join if they wish to
- The working group should be composed of at least eight people, if not more
- It shall be the duty of the working group to deal with complaints in a timely and sensitive manner
- During meetings if the Safer Spaces Policy is breached members on the working group should feel free to point it out and attempt to deal with it. Others may also come forward to inform the working group about Safer Spaces breaches. All complaints should be taken seriously.
- If oppressive language is used it should be challenged as soon as possible
- Generally, if people feel able, it should addressed immediately and called out, with appropriate explanations as to why it is oppressive and what language might be used instead
- If the offender apologises and changes their language immediately, and this is their first or one of their first offences, the matter need not be pursued any further
- If, however, this person refuses to change their language and/or is a repeat offender the matter should be taken up by the working group who will discuss further measures to take including:
- Issuing the offender with a formal warning (written or verbal) and explanation of how their use of language is offensive, reminding them of the Safer Spaces Policy
- Asking the offender to leave the group entirely if it is felt that they are not at all receptive, after the formal warning
- If it is felt this is a widespread or commonly misunderstood issue there should be discuss of a workshop to inform others on the issues surrounding this particular complaint
Oppressive behaviours section was remitted to the national committee for further discussion
Physical/Sexual harassment, assault and violation of boundaries
- If members or the working group witnesses or hears of any form of coercive, non-consenting physical or sexual assault they should encourage the victim to come forward and report it. Only if the victim is comfortable should this be taken to the official working group, they are under no obligation to report it.
- This matter should be dealt with by as few people as possible. One person on the working group should be involved directly with the complainant. They should remain anonymous to all other members of the working group to try and avoid bias. The case should be presented in a neutral, victim-led way.
- The case should be reviewed by the working group taking into consideration statement from both the victim and the accused, but with the understanding that this process should always depend on the victim’s wishes. It is NOT for the working group to decide whether or not the accused is guilt they ONLY decide if they consider them a threat to others and the victim’s safety.
- The working group may decide to take any or all of the following measures:
- Issue a warning to the offender that their behaviour has made others uncomfortable and that any further breach may lead to more serious action being taken
- Banning the offender from all future events and online forums
- Banning the offender for a fixed period of time
- Ensuring that the offender and the victim (and those affected) are not in the same spaces
- Supporting the victim in either legal action or restorative justice
8 – Creating a long term strategy for the free education movement
- The past few months have been the product of an unprecedented level of work and strategy done by student activists – inside NCAFC and outside – and we need to keep this going and continue to develop a strategy that can keep the student movement going and beat the government.
- To develop a strategy which includes:
- More effective raising and using of resources, looking towards paying national organisers
- The expansion and improvement of local groups
- The expansion and improvement of NCAFC
- More and better direct action
- More effective and clearer strategies for interacting with institutions – including NUS and formal politics
- To release a ‘ free education battleplan’ and to develop an organisational strategy based on (a) the resolves of this motion (after amendments), along with (b) other actions and strategies we pass at conference and (c) elements of informal discussion from conference incorporated by the NC.
8B – Amendment
- To establish the point of principle that there should be one united organisation on the student left campaigning for free education.
8C – Amendment
- NCAFC has consistently played a role in facilitating long-term strategizing in the student movement, and this needs to continue. At present, this has gone as far as thinking months in advance: towards a national demonstration.
- We need to think not just months in advance, but years in advance. The fight for free education – of the kind which are campaigning for – will take many years to accomplish, and will require us to pull of actions and national co-ordinations that are far in excess of what we have managed since 2010.
- A national student strike – taken to mean a truly mass wave of direct action, protest and civil disobedience – would give us the focus for a new wave of student struggle. Such events do not happen by accident or by genius of timing: they happen because organisations like ours decide on a strategy and make them happen.
- To begin building for a student strike – with local demonstrations and blockades –in the calendar year of 2016.
8D – Amendment
- We have spent the past 9 months talking in various ways about what free education “really means” and “how it can be achieved”.
- We should make this project more intellectually serious.
- We should write it down.
- We will produce a proper document about free education over the next few months, with contributions from a wide range of activists, academics and thinkers. This document should represent the breadth and depth of the movement we are building, including HE and FE, etc.
- We will launch this document in March 2015.
8E – Amendment
- Last weekend (6th December) saw a series of local marches and actions on a weekend day, in Brighton, London, Bath, Hastings and Chichester.
- These local marches were mostly small. However, they were successful in their basic task: bringing in local communities and workers. This task is not easy, and it will not be short – but it is absolutely central to making the campaign for free education successful.
- To continue to call local marches and similar actions on weekend days in the new term.
8F – Amendment
- There are loads of student unions
- These unions are physical spaces
- We often do lots of occupying campuses while abandoning SUs to a commericialised tat
- SUs should be political spaces – physically, and not just in policy and on paper
- We should do a day of action targeted at unions – in sympathetic unions this could be done by or with sabbatical officers, and in crap ones we could occupy them
- To call a day of action for a weekday in late January based around (a) using the space of student unions to build free education campaigns and (b) making a point about the depoliticisation and commercialisation of student unions.
8G – Amendment: Grassroots workers’ struggles
- Support for workers’ rights and a politics of class struggle have been consistent parts of NCAFC and should continue to be.
- Any effort to win free education must be fundamentally intertwined with education workers’ struggles.
- Like the NUS, workers’ unions in education such as the UCU and Unison are bureaucratised.
- Left-wing organising within these unions (for instance, by groups like the UCU Left) has often been too focussed on winning posts in the union structures and has done too little to organise the kind of radical democratic rank-and-file campaigns that would be needed to transform those unions, win serious gains for workers, and transform education.
- Casualised academic workers (many of whom are students, e.g. teaching assistants) have recently been involved in building local campaigns with a more grassroots attitude (most prominently the SOAS Fractionals). Some of these workers, including some NCAFC activists, are beginning to network and are now planning a conference focussed on such struggles for the new year (“FACE: Fighting Against Casualisation in Education”).
- From a student perspective, solidarity with workers has sometimes been used to mean uncritical support for the official structures of the labour movement and their leaders, even when those leaders are selling out workers. We should not hesitate to “take sides” when necessary within the labour movement – for those advocating the kind of grassroots democracy and radical action NCAFC promotes in the student movement, against the bureaucracy.
- To support and help promote the FACE conference.
- To reach out and attempt to build strong links of mutual solidarity with this emerging tendency and any similar ones.
- To support NCAFC members involving themselves in the labour movement in favour of radical, grassroots, class-struggle politics.
- To encourage our local groups and activists to help build and support local campaigns of this type.
- To incorporate practical solidarity and coordination with workers and their campaigns, along the lines set out above, into our strategy going forward.
9 – Proposal for a National Demonstration in Birmingham
Next term the student movement will need to organise more action to keep free education (as well as opposition to cuts and privatisation, opposition to victimisations and anti-democratic crackdowns, and solidarity with workers in struggle) on the agenda. This will mostly be local action but it would also be good to have another national focus for the movement.
This is a proposal to hold a national demonstration in Birmingham sometime in the second term. Why?
- It would be good to demonstrate somewhere other than London.
- There is an important activist group in Birmingham, Defend Education, which has many of its own issues to highlight, needs support and can build effectively locally.
- The Labour Party’s Higher Education spokesperson, Liam Byrne, is a Birmingham MP, and is busy selling out even the crap 6k fees promise Ed Miliband made to students. We should take the demonstration to his constituency and embarrass him and Labour.
A national demonstration for free education in Birmingham, with has as one element condemning Labour’s repeated sell outs and wholesale capitulation to neo-liberalism and demanding it changes it policy to free education, would be a good thing to do.
We could also get trade unions locally and nationally to support and sponsor the demonstration – starting with local support and then demanding national support.
Clearly we are not going to get 10,000 students to Birmingham in February, but we can get a very substantial number if we start organising now. We should seek to get student unions and activist groups to organise transport.
NCAFC should work with BDE on this and call for wider support.
11 – Organising Regional Meetings (This motion was remitted to the national committee and passed there)
- That the number of active local campus anti-cuts/free education groups has increased in the past few months
- That helping these groups to co-ordinate regional meetings could lead to greater links between activists in a similar localities, enable them to discuss issues relevant to their area, organise joint direction actions and pass on skills and knowledge between different activists and groups
- That these regional groups are potentially in a better position to help start up activist groups on nearby campuses than the National Committee
- To work with established anti-cuts/free education groups to work out sensible regional groupings
- To work with these groups to set up and publicise regional meetings in the spring term where different groups and activists for a similar area can come together
- That these regional meetings shall be autonomous from NCAFC but they may decide to establish themselves as a “Region” and thus secure a place on the National Committee. They may decide their own policy, hold their own elections and organise their own actions if they so choose
12 – Amendment to the Constitution: Having two democratic conferences per year
- At present, we only have one formal democratic conference per year (with some interim liberation caucuses in summer on an ad hoc basis).
- There is a high turnover in student activism: being an NC member in two academic years may lead to some people dropping out half way through their term.
- NCAFC has held 1 to 2 summer events every year since 2011.
NCAFC conference believes:
- We have had a historic problem with NC members becoming inactive following the end of an academic year. It does not make sense for some activists to be bound to a role which they cannot fulfil. It makes even less sense for activists not to run for NC because they are worried they would not continue in the role satisfactorily
- Ideally, we would re-elect the NC every six months. However, doing this at present would mean either electing the NC from an unreliably attended conference or expending a large part of NCAFC’s organisational energies into building another conference.
- We should hold a Summer Conference every year – which could be combined with summer training – which:
- Takes place in June, July, August or September
- Allows NC members who are about to become inactive to stand down, and elect replacements
- Discusses and passes policy and strategy proposals for the summer/autumn term
- Does not amend the constitution
- Does not re-elect the whole NC
NCAFC conference resolves:
- To amend the constitution as follows:
In Section 4, REPLACE all relevant mentions of ‘conference’ with ‘annual conference’
DELETE Bullet point 2 in 4.A.1: “There shall be at least one conference per academic year”, and REPLACE “There shall be at least one annual conference per year and one Summer Conference per year, as laid out below”.
“In the months of June, July, August or September, NCAFC will hold a summer conference. This can be combined with another event (such as a training or gathering event) and will have the power to:
- Discuss and approve strategies for the coming months through a motions process
- Fill vacant or inactive posts on the National Committee, including through caucuses
Before the Summer Conference, NC members who are currently or are planning to become inactive in student activism are encouraged to resign so that their place can be refilled at the conference.”