Opinion: “Why NCAFC? Or, Where We Are & Where We Should Go”

quarmby demo smoke“Free Education Now: Tax The Rich” demo, Nov 2017 © Natasha Quarmby Photography

By Monty Shield (in a personal capacity)

Contrasting terms

Compare snapshots of this term and the first term of last year. The national political picture has changed dramatically for the better. And so has student politics and the fight for free education funded by taxing the rich.

In April 2016, NCAFC won a vote at NUS’ national conference mandating our national union to hold a free education demo in the Autumn term. The leadership of NUS took a left turn and a 2016 demo was organised in earnest. But breaking the mandate from conference, the demo was politically vague – centring around the slogan “United for Education”. A few thousand gathered, less than the year before. It was flat and, crucially, failed to attract and inspire many new activists.

This stood in contrast to NCAFC’s free education demo the previous year: politically harder, louder and unapologetically for free education against the marketisation of universities and colleges. There are several activists now on our national committee who often remind us that 2015’s November protest was there first engagement with local and national activism.

If NUS’s demo was disappointing, the national picture was dire. The election of Corbyn as Labour leader the year before had made many of us rightfully hopeful that his commitment to free education would take forward our struggle significantly. But at this point Labour were around 13 points behind in the polls, on their way to a 21 point gap, after a summer in which a third of the Labour Party had voted for Owen Smith in the leadership race – a politician who made consistent sexist gaffes, wanted to throw migrants under the bus, and who refused to oppose the Islamophobic Prevent programme. What’s more, the Corbyn leadership was capitulating on key issues: support of free movement was ditched, as was opposition to Trident. It looked like Corbyn’s chances of winning a general election were a fantasy, and that whatever the right wing backlash that followed his impending exit, they would be sure to make sure free education was side-lined for good.

Then followed NUS’s national conference and a near clean-sweep for the rightwing slate.

It is not surprising that there was not a large abundance of local activity throughout last year, or that there was a slight drop-off in direct engagement with NCAFC over the summer. NCAFC’s traditional base – local free education/’Defend Education’ activist groups had peeled off or fallen away and the conditions were not there for them to start again. The mood of many core activists in the student movement was a deflated one.

There was one exception that first term. At the start of December students in the activist group Warwick for Free Education occupied a £5.3m new university conference building. They demanded an end to an anti-occupation injunction on students at Warwick and called for the university to give better conditions to academic staff and carry out non-compliance with Teaching Excellence Framework. They transformed the construction space into a democratically run area, filled it with political discussion and won some major concessions from management, including a lifting of the injunction. This occupation was a reminder, not just of the need for direct action, but of it’s potential for successfully shaping universities to how we want them to be.

While activists were organising on their campuses locally, we would then have to wait months for the next victories, grinding our way through a depressing second term.

But after months, things did turn around. In March we got the news that the NSS Boycott had been a success in twelve institutions and majorly dented the results in dozens more. This was despite a lackluster approach from NUS and many of the places where the boycott was most successful were places where NCAFC activists had put their head down and campaigned for months, not knowing if their work would pay off.

It did, and the Government has since been forced to respond and change their plans as a result. Indeed, this time last year they had rampantly pushed through their higher education reforms and were raising fees. Yet a few weeks ago they announced a freeze on fees under pressure from students and are far less openly bold about their marketisation agenda, even if we can expect them to pursue it for as long as they are in Government.

The NSS Boycott was followed by a big win for the rent strike at UCL. And then incredible victories for heavily exploited, often migrant workers at LSE and SOAS. And while it did not get much coverage outside of activist circles, at University of the Arts London an all-women occupation halted 8 staff redundancies.

This all happened around the time of the general election. Over a couple of months, free education became hugely popular with workers and students across the country. In constituencies heavily dominated by students, seats were won for Labour because of the popularity of the boldly left wing manifesto and students who came out and campaigned day in and day out.

Much of the spirit found in those victories is there in first term now

Building on work from last year, students and workers campaigning together at Bath University have forced the resignation of their Vice-Chancellor, the highest paid in the country. VC Breakwell was a symbol for – and key actor in – the marketisation of higher education across the country. We are still to see the full effects of this nationally but it could be huge.

There are also significant local campaigns happening across the country: for the living wage such as at Nottingham, Cambridge and Abertay; for cheaper rents at places like Bristol, Surrey, Sussex, UCL and Aberdeen (the last place of which recently ran a very popular campaign for the election of a new university rector on the basis of a commitment to fighting for migrant and migrant students against xenophobia, for better mental health services, lower rents and LGBTQ+ rights); against Prevent at Queen Mary; and against staff cuts at Manchester. Yesterday there was a demo at UCL for better mental health services during an open day. This is to name but a few of the active places (and apologies to the campuses not mentioned).

On top of this, University of London workers are getting organised. The victories at SOAS and LSE show us what is possible, as does the legacy of the succesfull 3 Cosas campaign by migrant cleaners at Senate House in London, who went on strike successfully over sick pay, holidays and pensions in 2013-14.

And since the first term of the last academic year and now, we’ve seen the first ever strike of McDonald’s workers in the UK, and the major expansion of the Picturehouse strike for a living wage.

The point is that even before we factor in the Free Education Now – Tax the Rich demonstration on Nov 15, we can see a clear change from this term to the first term of last year. There is more happening on the ground.

Is this overly optimistic?

It would be wrong and falsely optimistic to declare flippantly: “The Government is weak”; or “everything is kicking off”; or even that we are imminently to see the abolition of fees in the UK. After all, the Conservatives will doggedly hang on to Government for as long as they can.

But winning free education was always going to be a long fight. One that would involve several generations of activists patiently pushing and building, keeping free education on the agenda even at times when it appeared lost – or where it was hampered by the right or soft left of NUS.

When I got involved in NCAFC in 2014, the line we would always repeat over and over is “free education is not a pipe dream” – and we had to say that, because of how distant it did feel. Now no one is saying that, because people don’t think it is a pipe dream any more and we have moved forward significantly.

There are three things have happened over the past year which give NCAFC a renewed purpose:

  1. The struggle for free education and to win broad support for it has been moved on hugely by the election. In terms of sheer popularity, we are a long way ahead than at any point since tuition fees were introduced in the UK almost 20 years ago. The tide has started to turn on the Government and it is up to us to make the most of it.
  2. Students may have campaigned for Labour in the election. But there are swathes of people not yet politically convinced of the need to campaign between elections. They are not yet convinced that, as the Warwick and UCL comrades showed us, the way we win is from the bottom up. Our job is to win people round to this perspective, through discussion and debate, and organising locally and through national actions like the demo and NSS Boycott.
  3. There are activists fighting on the ground across the UK, by and large not through Defend Education, Free Education or anti-cuts groups as they did following the upsurge in 2010. Instead, activists are doing incredible work on the ground across different areas as outlined above.

That’s where NCAFC comes in

Our job as NCAFC is to re-orientate towards the new situation and to what activists are really doing on the ground, and to link these existing and growing campaigns up into a national movement. We exist to be a collection of these activists – in many places we are these activists, and in many we still need to recruit people to NCAFC – and we exist to be a democratically decided national voice and coordination. This collective strength is what drives forward our national events, and the national events serve to harness this collective strength.

This was perhaps the biggest purpose of the Free Education Now – Tax the Rich demo. It may have been smaller than we would have liked, but the payoff has been very big:

  1. Activists on over 50 campuses across the UK mobilised for this demo. In all these places, we have drawn anywhere from a handful of students to larger activist groups into national political struggle. This includes in campuses and areas where NCAFC has never known activists before.
  2. The demo was loud, energetic and attended by a lot of these new activists. This is crucial. It is NCAFC’s role – and crucial for building a genuinely democratic movement – that we call actions at a national level and bring people into the movement through organising on their campus and being part of these actions, and then coming to our democratic events to decide what to do next.
  3. It gave an incisive and clear platform for our demands: free education, living grants for all, stop the campus cuts – all funded by taxing the rich – and to our politics of supporting workers’ struggles. It is because of our demo that our slogans hit the national newspapers in the Autumn term and, for example, that thousands of people stopped outside Picturehouse Central chanting that Cineworld should pay the living wage. Our demands go further than those offered by any major political party, and we need to show that there is pressure and support for these demands from below if we are to hope to shape that national picture.

It is important that we don’t try to relate to these activists and local struggles – or conceptualise NCAFC – in a top-down way. To advance the national fight for free education, we need national strategies. And it is through this that we have and will engage activists on a local level. NCAFC should be the deliberate integration of activists involved in local organic struggles into a national movement with a narrative that sees all of these struggles within the contexts of the marketisation of education. And our national strategies should be developed by these activists both through the national committee but more importantly on the ground. Where this consistent integration, national decision-making and reintegration is not happening, we should work hard to make sure it does.

This year’s national demonstration was called by the national committee of NCAFC, in response to a mandate from our Summer Conference that we should call a demonstration if circumstances changed significantly in the months afterwards – with the conference having voted not to call a free education demo focussed on i) opposition the campus cuts and higher education reforms ii) for more funding for FE iii) votes at 16 iv) £10hr and a ban on zero hour contracts. It is ultimately good that this demonstration was voted down because I think this would have been too broad and lacked the political focus we needed and got.

When free education became national news week after week in July, with major public debate on the issue and the Conservative Government on the back foot, the national committee registered the change and acted on its mandate. This demo has acted as a focal point, bringing together activists from Aberdeen to Sussex and Swansea to Newcastle, and dozens of campuses in between, into one united action. We have started to turn the tide of the national demoralisation from last year and opened up the potential for ourselves to have a genuine relationship with activists across the country.

NSS Boycott 2018

The 2018 NSS Boycott will act in a similar way. It will dent the Government’s university metrics again, and serve as a unifying action that ties together activists on the ground. The NSS boycott is now a national strategy because at a NCAFC conference in the academic year 2014/15 a NCAFC member (not indeed on the NC) raised this suggestion. We took it forward as an organisation, developed it and at a later NCAFC conference committed to it. And we took it forward to NUS and won.

All the organising that happened last year and will happen this year, all the printing and distribution of what must have been hundreds and thousands of flyers, all the hours and hours spent postering, all of the contacting of different groups, all of the new people who got involved in the campaigning last year – even the NSS Dank Memes stash – happened because there existed an organisation in the student movement that created the conditions for a suggestion like that to be made and considered, for people to be convinced of that idea and for that idea to be given a national voice and turned into a strategy that actually forced the Government to backtrack and re-write the metrics for the Teaching Excellence Framework.

This weekend, we will re-debate whether or not to continue our involvement with the NSS boycott. If we want a coherent national strategy, we should absolutely vote to continue it.

The Autumn Speaker Tour

Another key thing that laid some of the groundwork for our future activism was this year’s Autumn speaker tour, organised by one of the new NC members. It turned into the most successful tour that we have seen in years. This involved NCAFC activists travelling around different parts of the country, making and reinforcing local connections.

Can NCAFC do no wrong?

Well, yes we can and we do need to change parts of our earlier analysis. Firstly, it is clear that some of the predictions we made at our Summer Conference earlier this year were wrong. At Summer Conference, we predicted that the academic staff cuts sweeping the country would lead to lots of anti-cuts campaigns and that our job would be to link up with in the first term, and link them together nationally – after all, NCAFC grew out of such a movement in 2010. Had this happened, it may well have provided the backbone for a significantly larger national demonstration.

Despite doing significant legwork of contacting lots of campuses, this upsurge did not happen and the only place a major struggle has taken place this term, at Manchester University, there was already an existing left activist base. It proved difficult to enthuse people to take up the fight on their campuses with us, without having had any previous relationship with NCAFC or our national events.

It is also clear that we need to build a more reciprocal political relationship between campus activist groups and other NCAFC activists nationally. This includes looking to Scotland, where there is a lot of potential for developing NCAFC activism and putting demands to a Government in Scotland that has for too long used the fact that is doesn’t charge fees for home students as a cover for huge attacks on further education, a failure to control extortionate rents, and the treatment of international students as cash cows. There is a strategy amendment that Scottish comrades and I have submitted to this weekend’s conference about developing NCAFC Scotland which I would encourage everyone to vote for.

Additionally, as many activists as possible from across the country should run for the NCAFC national committee, and as well as a renewed drive to widen NCAFC activity out of the NC, this should act as a springboard for unlocking the potential for national and local activism in front of us.

Where is NUS in all this?

There is huge disconnect between NUS and activists on the ground. This has not been helped by the fact that while hundreds of students were mobilising for this demo in the first weeks of Autumn term, the rightwing President Shakira Martin blocked our attempts to link NUS up with this grassroots organising by blocking a demo support motion at the NUS’s National Executive Council (the decision-making body of elected representatives that decides NUS policy between conferences).

To their credit, a much higher number than usual of the NUS full-time officers and NEC members saw the need for the demo and put in some work to build it: whether it was leafleting, transporting materials to campuses, or stewarding on the day. This marks another key function of the demo: after the left’s defeat at NUS conference in the summer it has acted as a relatively unifying force, bringing people together under the banner of free education funded by taxing the rich.

NCAFC has been the national driving force this Autumn, and has carved out a place for itself in national student politics on our terms. We need to take this forward into NUS and use the potential this year to help us take the next step in transforming it into an activist union.

We should encourage the activists we’ve met through this term’s actions to run for NUS delegate, and actively support them in doing this. And we should NUS conference as another opportunity to give a national voice to our politics, winning round the delegates in the room, and the students outside of it. This means taking every opportunity we can – through submitting motions and running candidates – to defeat the right wing of conference and also win round the rest of the left to our politics and the need for democratic organising and direct action.

Unlocking potential

A huge amount of energy went into our Autumn activity, and it has paid off. Collectively it has given us a good overview of the picture nationally: this is not just in terms of knowing what is happening and in many places driving forward local activity, but also knowing what isn’t going to spark and escalate, such as widespread local anti-cuts campaigns.

We have a renewed national prominence and function. And we can reassess the national picture from a position of strength and knowing there is so much potential to unlock in front of us. Let’s take this into term two, link up these local campaigns and be involved on the ground and at a national level as much as we can. Let’s go forward from this conference with a clear national strategy, including the 2018 NSS boycott, so that we can generate and be part of on-the-ground activity across the country.

This is what will help us change the face of student politics and bring us another step closer to winning free education. And knowing what we have to change, and doing it, is what will drive forward NCAFC and invigorate an active membership.

As I said at the start, there are lots of NCAFC activists who first got involved around the demo in Autumn 2015. If this was your first free education demo, consider running for the national committee, and also help us develop the link between the activism you’re doing on your campus and NCAFC’s national work and decision-making.

See you at the conference.

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