The Radical History of Students’ Unions

c0me-and-join-usBy Zoe Salanitro

Today is NUS’ #LoveSUs day and many of us are left asking: what’s to love? The most recent Tory proposals for Higher Education look bleak: rising fees, changes in loan repayment terms and the continuation of PREVENT, which is eroding the relationship between students and staff.  Yet a lot of SUs don’t appear to be doing anything about it. There has, undoubtedly, been some successes in a number of student unions, such as Warwick, that have managed to freeze fees for existing students but so far not enough to defeat the government or, indeed, put off university management for long. Despite the appearance of campaigns such as #LoveSUs, Student Unions haven’t always been bastions of glow sticks and ‘sabb selfies’ – there is an important radical history to SUs, one of ambition and daring, that we should look to for inspiration in the months ahead. We mustn’t forget everything we have we fought for – including our seat at the table.

The occupations in universities across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the universities of Birmingham and Liverpool led to SU representatives gaining seats on major university committees such as the senate. Students at the University of Warwick occupied the Senate House building which to led to the university constructing a dedicated SU building. Often protesting and having a seat at the table are pitted against one another when in fact their histories are intertwined. Sabbatical Officers and union representatives that have a seat at the table but lack the force of students to back them are weak and easily ignored by management. The threat of direct action and disruption to the university are the very reason we won these positions and remain key in winning any large demands. This isn’t limited to universities either, in 1968 Hornsey College of Art went into occupation for six weeks over the withdrawal of their Student Union and  through their occupation succeeded in challenging the composition of art education in the UK.

The University of Cambridge Students Union was formed on the back of a series of protests against the Greek fascist dictatorship in the 1970s. A wave of occupations in the early 2000s led to universities twinning with Palestinian institutions and, such as in the case of Sheffield, led to the development of scholarships for students from Gaza.

The proudest moments in the history of SUs have been instances of international solidarity even when, at the time, it’s put students against the government. The most famous and successful example, the boycott of Apartheid South Africa, led to direct action and campaigning at almost every major higher education institution in the country. The important role SUs have played in campaigning for international issues is crucial to remember in light of recent calls for student unions to only focus on ‘student issues’ as if somehow we can be separated from the rest of the world or ignore the international composition of the student population. It’s also important to remember that, usually, the people who say we should focus on ‘student issues’ have done little to no campaigning on them.

Moreover, there is a tired idea thrown around far too much which claims unions are divided into people interested in political causes and people who are involved in sports or societies. This idea holds no weight; in fact sporting students have shown what thoughtful, political involvement with the SU and university looks like. From the predecessors of BUCS, who joined the massive student protests in the 1970s against cuts to grants, defeating the then education secretary, Margaret Thatcher; to the sports teams across a number of unions who joined in boycotts of South African Apartheid by refusing to play South African teams among other things.Most recently, Goldsmiths Rugby team took action in solidarity with the Palestinian cause by displaying a Palestinian flag on their uniform..

Tokenistic campaigns like #LoveSUs are mostly a bunch of bland union hacks giving themselves a pat on a back, however whether it’s LSESU who rioted against the appointment of a director of the school who had been complicit in Rhodesia’s white minority rule and for occupying a space for nursery or the colleges and schools, often with little union infrastructure that took action against EMA cuts in 2010, this article can only begin to scratch the surface of SUs’ radical history. However, these, among many other struggles outside of student unions are part of the rich tradition of student activism beyond strategic plans and risk assessments.

It’s our turn to add to this radical tradition.

Come to our conference in January and support the NSS boycott!

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