Vote IN to defend freedom of movement and workers’ rights!

aeipNCAFC is urging a vote to Remain in next week’s referendum on the UK’s European Union membership. We want to defend the rights we have, while fighting for a radically transformed Europe – one of open borders and of genuine democracy and social justice. This is based on the position our members voted for last Summer. In the coming days, we urge our members and supporters to get involved in progressive campaigning to win Remain votes on a left-wing basis.

We support and defend the guarantee of freedom of movement for EU citizens, including students travelling to study, and we want to fight to extend it to those currently locked out of “Fortress Europe”. The erosion of national divisions, and the workers’ rights and human rights protected in EU law, are also to be supported.

Nevertheless, we don’t deny that the EU, as currently constructed, is designed to secure the interests of the rich and powerful, and its governance is relatively undemocratic and bureaucratic.

However, we see no gains to be made in a retreating into our respective nation-states and raising borders. Our national governments are also constructed to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, and don’t have any more progressive potential. This is doubly true given the circumstances of this referendum – a vote to leave would see the UK crash out of the EU in a wave of nationalistic, conservative agitation against migrants, human rights and workers’ rights. This is further underlined by the murder of Jo Cox by a suspected fascist, we have released a statement on the killing here.

Instead of leaving, we seek to build and connect the left and the student and workers’ movements across Europe, and fight for open borders and a genuinely democratic and socially just Europe – and beyond. For us, a vote to remain is only the first step in a struggle to fundamentally transform Europe. That’s why we’re supporting specifically left-wing IN campaigning such as Another Europe Is Possible, and not the right-wing endorsement of the existing situation advocated by the Tory- and business-dominated Stronger In.

The next few days are crucial, and the outcome will depend on the efforts of campaigners on the ground, so we urge all our supporters to get involved. Another Europe Is Possible and Momentum have established a platform to advertise left-wing Remain campaign activity – take a look and take action!

Mourn the death of Jo Cox, and fight the nationalism that killed her

NCAFC sends its condolences and solidarity to the family, friends, colleagues and comrades of Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered on Thursday.

Cox was known to have spoken out in favour of migrants and refugees, and against leaving the EU. The suspected killer is reported to have shouted “Britain First” as he attacked, and to have been a long-standing follower of white supremacist, fascist literature. When he was asked his name in court he said ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ We must recognise the reality that these facts are almost certainly linked.

Current indications are that this was not an abstract, apolitical tragedy, a random act of violence, but a very political attack – the killing of a pro-migrant labour-movement politician by a nationalist – the product of a disturbing surge in right-wing nationalist and fascist and proto-fascist politics. This has not only been built by the far-right, but fed and legitimised by the nationalism and anti-migrant agitation of much “mainstream” politics too. And it has been whipped up in particular during the course of the EU referendum campaign.

As such, it demands not only a human response but a political response too. In the wake of this killing, and all those murdered by fascism and nationalism, we need to re-commit ourselves to breaking fascism and nationalism, not only at the ballot box but on the streets too.

NCAFC will be supporting the ‘After the referendum, defend all migrants’ rally next Friday and urges our members to come along and continue the fight whatever the outcome.

Final motions document for NCAFC summer conference 2016

slide_462040_6240332_free-1024x680The final motions document for NCAFC summer conference has been released. You can view it online here, and download the word document here.

There are 5 sections to this summer’s motions:

  • the education sector
  • internationalism
  • anti-racism, anti-fascism and no platform
  • the NUS
  • NCAFC’s internal processes and structures

The conference will be taking place in Edinburgh between 10th and 12th June 2016.

Statement on Keep The Caterers’ Victories

keep the caterersThis is a statement from the Keep The Caterers campaign at the University of Manchester, you can find them on facebook here.

In March, the University of Manchester announced plans to restructure its subsidiary company, UMC, making 46 redundancies in catering while moving the remaining staff on to ‘term-time only’ contracts. This latter move would have meant cuts of about one third to their total pay.

But now, as a result of solid negotiating by UNISON, and agitation and disruption by students, management have backed down. There will be no compulsory redundancies, no loss of hours and no pay cuts.

These victories in the fight against the university’s contemptuous treatment of its workers should embolden us all. We are strengthened in our belief in collective organising more than ever: in a sector beset by privatization and naked profiteering, it is important that students and workers come together in solidarity.

Our campaign was about challenging the audacity of an institution that made £46 million in profit last year to claim it cannot afford a living wage for its catering staff. This was clear when 96% of respondents of UNISON’s consultative ballot voted for strike action; when students occupied the Vice Chancellor’s office and disrupted a meeting in which management shamefully flaunted £600million+ plans for shiny new buildings; when hundreds of staff from across campus turned up to lunch time rallies.

It is clear that despite framing the restructure as a question of affordability the university simply sought to protect its profits. If there was money for Dame Nancy Rothwell’s living expenses, marketing campaigns and drinks receptions then there was and is money to pay catering staff a living wage and give them fair and full contracts.

UMC had served as an underhand way of employing people below the living wage which the university claimed to adhere to. It functions as as an internal outsourcing project, and though the worst excesses of the restructure have been defeated, we believe the trade union should continue a campaign for UMC workers to be brought back in house.

We also must not forget that some staff felt pressured to choose ‘voluntary’ redundancy, either because of an understandable fear of facing increasingly precarious working conditions, or a lack of faith in the ability of the union to fight their corner. This is an important reminder of the continuing need to build a strong movement. Indeed the drive towards marketisation in higher education is putting all jobs at risk.

There is power and strength that comes only from our unity, so it is important that the four unions on campus, as well as individual students and staff, continue to see our fights as one and be bold in our response to the battles ahead.

Another University is Possible.


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The agenda for our 2016 summer conference has been announced! Check it out below, and don’t forget to register your free place here for what is set to be a fantastic weekend!

18:00-19:30: Scottish Plenary: Education in Scotland, is it really free?
19:30: Social

10:00-10:45: Registration
10:45-11:45: Plenary: The Higher Education Reforms explained
11.45-12.00: Break
12:00-13:00: Workshops A:
1- Where next for… the fight to save the NHS?
2- Effective Deportation Resistance
3- Freedom of speech and no platforming
13:00-13:45: Liberation Caucus: Women and Non Binary
13:45-14.15: Lunch
14:15-15:00: Plenary: Learning from Scotland: how can we fight the FE area reviews?
15:00-16:00: Workshops B:
1- Where next for… rent strikes and housing struggles?
2- Organising in FE: practical action planning
3- Secularism and the left
16:00-16:15: Break
16:15-17:00: Liberation Caucus: Disabled
17:00-18:00: Workshops C:
1- Where next for… the fight against Prevent?
2- Labour societies, the left and the struggle on campus
3- Sexual Violence and the left
18:00-18:15: Break
18.15-19.00: Liberation Caucus: Black
19:00-20:00: Plenary: How do we fight the HE reforms and win grants not debt?
20.00: End of Day/Social

09:30-10:00: NCAFC goes for Breakfast (At the conference venue, breakfast food to be provided)
10:00-11:00: Discussion Plenary: Antisemitism and the Left
11:00-11:45: Liberation Caucus: LGBT+
11:45-12:00: Break
12:00-13:00: Workshops D:
1- How do we make the NSS sabotage happen?
2- Decolonising the university
3- Disabled people and direct action
13:00-13:30: Lunch
13:30-15:00: Motions Debate A
15:00-15:15: Break
15:15-16:45: Motions Debate B
16:45-16:55: Break
16:55-17:10: Sections Elections
17:10-17:30: NC By-elections
17:30-17:45: Closing Remarks

I don’t want a free Maccies burger, I want a fighting, political NUS: A response to our Vice President

This piece is by Hannah McCarthy, Campaigns Officer at Manchester Student Union, Free Education MCR activist and NCAFC member in response to NUS Vice President Union Development Richard Brooks’s article in the Telegraph.

In what reads as a politically atrocious article from our NUS Vice President of Union Development, let’s first prove his analysis as clumsy at best, and historically inaccurate and disingenuous at worst.

On the very day that the government launches its’ largest attack yet on Higher Education, coming thick and fast in the form of the White Paper, here we have a national Vice President who is apparently more concerned with internalising, adding to and capitalising on, incredibly right-wing critiques of NUS as a political body, as opposed to rejecting them.

Here, Richard misuses his platform and takes the opportunity to discredit his fellow officers, essentially placing onus upon their ‘factionalism’ for the recent calls to disaffiliate. The irony.

The idea that it’s the NUS’ lack of political unity which renders it inaffective is incredibly politically poor, but unfortunately this is a critique which rings and permeates on a daily basis.

This ‘unity’ is often appealed for by those who flout democracy, who seek only to advance their position with the right-wing press, business and the government, and by those who routinely use this mechanism of ‘unity’ to avoid criticism for their awful politics and decisions as elected representatives.

The calls for unity completely delegitimise the justifiable expression of anger by a disempowered, too often sold-out grass-roots, and by officers who are routinely thrown under the bus in the revolving door of careerism that is the NUS.

And yet people have the audacity to claim it is the left which are ‘factional’.

Time and time again we’ve seen this depoliticised call for unity levied at outraged defences of left-wing full-time officers, as they conveniently aren’t invited to lobby Parliament against the cuts to Maintenance Grants. This works to silence the concerns and anger of liberation officers and activists at the entirely factional politics of the right, and yet it’s the status quo and appeals to the need for a ‘credible’ image around NUS officers and activists that comes to defence of the right’s objectionable political decisions.

Making yesterday’s article even more infuriating is the pandering to the right-wing beliefs of conservative students who do not believe nor desire for the validity of collective agitation in a union, instead of politically challenging this narrative and attempting to advocate for something better.

It is the National Conference that leant left in voting to campaign for Living Grants, to boycott the NSS, for a full-time Trans Officer and much more that gives Brooks his democratic mandate, not the Tory press.

Brooks himself isn’t the problem – he’s unfortunately simply symptomatic of a much wider trend.

The reason moderate national officers refused to defend the students who tore up Millbank, or those who routinely take direct action to save staffs’ jobs is because they see militants and politicised activists as an inconvenience – a constant thorn in the side of a political persuasion that longs for an NUS that’s acceptable, moderate and palatable to the powers that be.

This isn’t just a case of Brooks playing up to the establishment in invoking their critique of the left as unrepresentative, dissenting, trouble makers – it’s that his politics display he actually believes their critique to be true.

The mobilising left represent not only a threat to their seamless career progression, but a continual pressure and reminder that their lukewarm, unremarkable term in office just hasn’t been good enough.

I’m absolutely incensed by the complete lack of political analysis in terms of what’s actually at play here. Instead of realising and rejecting the right-wing opportunism which calls for unions to disaffiliate from NUS, our VP has the audacity to allow the right’s mobilisation to throw the toys out of the pram to go unchallenged.

Again, on the day in which the Tories present their biggest attack on HE in decades, increasing the erosion of workers’ pay, conditions and exploiting students through an increase in fees coupled with the closure of courses, vital services and much more – our VP chooses to mount a political defence of the powers of collectively organising in our national union by firstly discussing the ‘important’ benefits of NUS membership that allows SUs to buy alcohol cheaply and the free Maccies burger that students can enjoy with the NUS discount card.

Our rights to a free double cheeseburger and the occasional large chips are obviously especially relevant as our bursaries and grants sail off into the sunset without an adequate defence or challenge from our national union, with their response to the government’s heinous actions tepid at best.

Our union is weakened by the fact that SUs at large are literally lining up to disaffiliate from it – thus reducing its collective bargaining power as the body which claims to represent all students when the NUS mounts serious opposition to government policy.

It’s this that the power of our union is weakened by, not political discussion – and yet our VPUD evades garnering a principled, properly political defence of the relevance, urgency and necessity of our union as the government wages war on education.

To imply that students for decades have only actively campaigned on course closures, fees and reductions in their material interests is completely, factually wrong.

Worse, Brooks deploys the recent media attention given to students’ discussions and mobilisations against sexual, racial and gendered oppression in order to align with the worldview that the ‘average student’ cannot simply see the world, or indeed care about it, beyond their immediate self-interest.

Once again, history proves this superficial analysis redundant as the countless examples of student struggle (both within, and outside of NUS) on international solidarity, whether that be Apartheid, Anti-war, or working with community organisations to mobilse against fascists on the streets – student activists have and student activists will organise and fight.

The ignorance of history only serves the apparent political move to discredit the left as isolated, and to peddle a narrative that is lapped up so enthusiastically by those dominant, and by those who want neo-liberalism, privatisation and the fundamental social relations of the society that we live in to go unchallenged and evade critique.

This only works to further the false illusion that an ‘average’ student exists, completely passive to political structures and only interested in shots on a night out alongside the annual Varsity.

Students everywhere are experiencing a life-time shackled with debt, cuts to counselling services and cuts to their grants. The marketization of education isn’t some abstract socialist concept.

It’s the very process of the transferring of market values to education and our  universities being ran as businesses which see our students systematically treated as consumers, increasingly having to take on part-time work and subject to ever more rigid exploitation – alongside our staff’s lives ruined as they face redundancy, pay cuts, extra workloads and attacks on their rights to organise in the workplace.

It’s fictitious to claim that it’s an unrepresentative minority who only care and are affected by government attacks.

It’s also ludicrous to propagate the idea that a political, democratic body founded to collectively organise in the interests of members should simply forget its’ history or purpose and submit to becoming a vehicle to merely enable the selling of more pizzas in the SU Bar.

The NUS shouldn’t apologise for being outside of the ‘national mainstream’, (or underestimate politics outside of the student movement), it should be fighting to change it – rather than constantly explaining the rationale behind that ideology, we must oppose and change it.

Let’s stand for the interests of our membership, who plainly wish to see an NUS which organises, stands up and fights, as opposed to one which merely notes opposition to government policy.

Press Release: NCAFC’s response to the HE White Paper

Contact: 07895405312, 07905136094


*** Government confirmed that through the TEF measures introduced in the HE White Paper, University fees could be increased from 2017/18
***Other plans include making it easier for private providers to offer degrees and become universities

*** Students to pursue strategy to ‘wreck’ government metrics if they don’t abandon plans in the White Paper


The Higher Education White Paper released on 16th May 2016 outlines the government’s plans for the Higher Education sector, with a focus on increasing competition between providers. A key part of the proposals is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), aiming to measure the quality of teaching in HE institutions. Its metrics include the National Student Survey (NSS) and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey (DLHE) which measures employment six months after graduation. The plans to allow universities to increase fees if they score highly on TEF have been delayed but not abandoned.


At NUS Conference in April, students passed policy stating that if the government did not back down on fee rises and marketisation proposals featured in the HE paper, students would run a campaign forcing either a boycott or a sabotage of the surveys, rendering them unusable. Last week Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union and the University of Sheffield Students’ Union became the first students’ unions, alongside NUS, to pass policy supporting the strategy with many key SUs expected to follow suit before the summer break.


Josh Berlyne, University of Sheffield student and NCAFC National Committee, said: “We can already see the effect our proposed boycott is having on the sector with the government now moving their implementation date back.  This has bought us more time, but we are not taking our eyes off the ball. The government did a U-turn on academies, and with pressure from students we expect them to do the same over these reforms.”


Ana Oppenheim, UAL Campaigns Officer and NUS National Executive Committee elect, said: “Increased marketisation and the over-bureaucratisation of higher education would be an absolute disaster. IWe have to go further than fighting against fee increases: this is an attack driven by an ideology which sees students as nothing but consumers, and will turn universities into heartless corporations. We need to fight these reforms before they destroy our education system.”


Jess Patterson, University of Manchester UCU Exec and NCAFC Postgrad Research Rep, said: “Postgrad teachers and other casualised university workers are already struggling and overstretched in underpaid, precarious work. Opening the sector to a horde of profiteering private businesses will see corners cut, exploitation intensified, and collective bargaining threatened with fragmentation. “Teaching excellence” needs decent wages, secure contracts, and enough time and resources for staff to do our jobs, and to empower teachers and students to govern teaching democratically – not exploitation and market chaos.”

Five initial responses to the HE White Paper

success as a knowledge economyThe government’s Higher Education White Paper that was released on Monday 16th May 2016 ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ is a clear ideological attack on students, workers and universities as truly public institutions. Here are our initial responses, we will have more for you over the next few days (keep an eye on our social media @NCAFC_UK ) and a full length response as soon as possible.

Free Education is ‘value for money’

One of things we keep hearing about from the government is that universities need to be ‘value for money’. This value will come from bringing in more ‘choice’ for students in where and what they study. This is very much an illusion and we should treat it as such. When you have to pay at least £9,000 a year upfront, you don’t have a proper choice. Students are valued only as consumers, the only choice they are offered is where to spend their money. The proposals are vague on SUs, mentioning more government oversight and scrutiny into how their funding is used. Really the only true value for money option is free education.

The privatisation of the UK’s higher education system

We’re seeing the start of a gradual end to public higher education in this country. Under the proposals laid out by the government, we will see private providers, including the likes of Google and Facebook, able to open their own universities if they wish. It will also create the possibility of institutions failing and leaving the market. This is most likely to affect universities which are traditionally known for widening participation such as London Met. These institutions most at risk have more working class and BME students than their Russell Group counterparts. These reforms won’t necessarily create the possibility of institutions failing but what it does say, explicitly, is that the government won’t help them if they do.


The government also claim that the market will squeeze out certain degrees. A lot is said about “mickey mouse degrees,” deemed useless as they don’t produce the most employable graduates. In practice, this will hit important areas like the arts and humanities. Society needs both artists and biochemists but the goal of the government is to see university become a pipeline for employers. This will at the very least mean funding cuts for lots of less profitable degrees and even the closing of some departments. We’ve already seen this happening with the increasing marketisation of education – Queen’s University Belfast completely cutting sociology is just one example. The White Paper will only make this more common.


There are a couple of silver linings. We’ve seen the government drop the idea to exempt universities from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and that the process for lifting the fee cap won’t change – it will still require a vote in Parliament. The plans to introduce variable fees have also been delayed, although not abandoned. This buys us more time to fight them.

What does ‘Teaching Quality’ mean for workers?

The flagship proposal in the HE White Paper is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Proposed to mirror the much detested Research Excellence Framework (REF), the TEF measures neither ‘teaching’ nor ‘excellence’ in any sense that you would imagine but rather looks at things such as graduate employment to see if teaching is ‘excellent’.This will undoubtedly lead to metric-driven teaching and increased pressure on staff to meet pointless targets rather than actually focus on teaching. It will also justify universities in continuing to casualise teaching staff. Casualised teachers simply cannot teach as well as teachers on fixed contracts due to stress, financial pressures, and having to find employment in summer months. Moreover lecturers’ pay has fallen by 14.5% in real terms since 2009 and UCU members (the academics’ trade union) will be going on strike on 25th and 26th May 2016 over pay including the ever persistent gender pay gap.

Does the White Paper ‘put students at its heart’?

If by students you mean a pliant future workforce. It is quite clear to all that the government calling the White Paper ‘student centric’ is a highly cynical move. It’s about getting private providers in Higher Education and dressing it up as ‘choice’. It’s also about pleasing big business – employers will be represented on TEF review panels, which means that Apple and BP could influence the curriculum. When the government talk about “student choice,” they mean making the ‘right kind of choice’ which in this case means the choice to study a degree that will see you get a well paid job. This might be a good time to mention that graduate employment is far more linked to what your parents do than what you study, and students from liberation groups are more likely to struggle on the job market regardless of their degree. Under these measures, university education would mean nothing but expensive training for the job you won’t get.


You cannot have a truly transformative, liberating education when the trade-off is a lifetime of debt. Competition under the guise of choice will not give us the education we want and need. Only robust public funding, more democracy and collaboration between staff and students can do that.

Why we need to fight the NSS and DLHE

The government has proposed an increase in fees linked to TEF, in large part using scores from the National Student Survey and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (the survey taken six months after graduation looking at employment). This measures has been delayed until TEF Year 2 which is academic year 2017/18. Then, institutions that score highly will be able increase fees in line with inflation, and by the 2018/19 the government would introduce varied levels of fee caps.


The NSS and DLHE are key parts of the TEF which will affect academics and students alike. This is the central pillar of the government’s proposals and what we have proposed to wreck with the policy we passed at NUS, calling for a boycott or a sabotage of the surveys. A successful boycott or sabotage will render these surveys useless thus destroying the credibility of TEF.


We now need to pass motions supporting the boycott/sabotage at as many student unions as possible. Here is a model motion. This summer we will work with the NUS VP Higher Education who will write to the government informing that if they don’t withdraw the TEF we intend to wreck it. From the start of the new term we will be running campaigns up and down the country to collect pledges from finalists agreeing to boycott or sabotage the 2017 NSS and 2018 DLHE. If you would like to get more involved come to our summer conference.


Model motion: Sabotage the NSS!

The government’s Higher Education White Paper, Success As A Knowledge Economy, proposes reforms which, if implemented, will pave the way for the end of public higher education as we know it.  Higher, variable fees will be introduced; private providers will be given help into the market as public universities are allowed to collapse; and “teaching excellence” will be measured on the basis of “student satisfaction” and the kinds of jobs graduates go into–rather than good quality teaching.  NUS is organising a national sabotage of the National Student Survey as part of a strategy to resist these reforms.  Get your SU to organise a local sabotage of the NSS by passing this motion at your SU Council!


SU notes

  1. The government’s May 2016 White Paper outlined extensive reforms to higher education.
  2. The flagship reform, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), will rely on data from the National Student Survey (NSS) and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey.
  3. Institutions which score highly in the TEF will be able to raise fees in line with inflation from 2017-19, followed by even higher level fees in 2019-20. (1)
  4. NUS is mandated to organise a national boycott or sabotage of NSS and DLHE as part of a strategy against the reforms.


SU believes

  1. The reforms fundamentally attack the idea of education as a public service.
  2. There are many reasons to oppose NSS, e.g. that it systematically discriminates against BME academics. (2)
  3. Sabotaging NSS and DLHE will disrupt the introduction of TEF, giving us leverage.
  4. A local-organised boycott/sabotage should only be done as part of a national boycott/sabotage organised by NUS.


SU resolves

  1. To organise a boycott/sabotage of NSS and DLHE, including:
    1. Refusing to promote NSS or have any pro-NSS material with the SU logo on;
    2. In term one 2016 running a campaign collecting pledges from finalists to boycott/sabotage the NSS;
    3. Working with UCU to discourage NSS promotion by academics and encourage academics to actively promote the sabotage instead;
    4. Promoting the sabotage through posters, leafleting, door-knocking and social media especially when the survey is released;
    5. Taking part in national actions and demonstrations linked to the NSS boycott/sabotage.
  2. To work with the University and UCU to create a local, non-metric-focused alternative to NSS to assess and thereby improve students’ learning experiences.




What Is a Union For?

This article by Luke Dukinfield was originally published on Novara Media here. They argue against right-wing disaffiliation narratives and for a political, fighting NUS that stands up for students’ material interests.

unity is strengthIn workplaces, unions have historically assumed the form of trade unions, and although there isn’t a simple continuity between the subjectivity of worker and student, I’d like to argue that both trade and student unions share a common political project, that their traditional function is entirely relevant to how unions should operate today, and that the neoliberal recuperation of this function is common across both trade and student unions.

This is an important point because the necessarily political function of unions is positioned by conservative students – currently agitating for disaffiliation from the NUS – as being in tension with itsrepresentative function. In fact, they often disregard that the political function should exist at all, erase the fact it has existed historically, and attempt to locate themselves as an unbiased, non-partisan and neutral tendency – the valiant defenders of the ‘ordinary student’. This means when a left-wing officer is elected by the democratic mechanisms of the NUS, they latch onto that victory and weaponise it to denounce the NUS as ‘too political’, ‘driven by ideological cliques’ and ‘undemocratic’. They support the union’s democratic structure until it does not serve their own ideological vision, until someone they disagree with politically is elected. But there is something bigger than just the hypocrisy of an ideological clique of conservatives agitating for disaffiliation on the basis of challenging ideological cliques.

It’s not even that I disagree entirely with their argument that the democratic mechanisms of the NUS are exclusive and do not optimally facilitate broad representation. Rather, it is the content of their conceptualisation of ‘representation’ – a framing that even some left-wing delegates and officers have replicated in their analysis of the national conference. The idea is that unions should exist to represent a broad range of political viewpoints, providing ‘opportunities’ for individual entrepreneurial advancement, optimising our choice as consumers, and acting – to some degree – as service providers. The implication is that the ‘ordinary student’ has been constructed as a consumer by the neoliberal experiment in education, and therefore unions should exist to customise that construction, rather than reject and contest the very basis of its logic. The dominant appeals to the ‘ordinary student’ are predicated upon the notion that we must represent students-as-customers.

At its very worst, capitulation to this logic even exists alongside an ostensible recognition of the urgency to challenge the threats of the impending higher education reforms, whilst seeming to acknowledge no contradiction between the two. This accommodationism must be firmly challenged, whether it veils itself in the opportunistic appropriation of the language of liberation and professes its support for those campaigns or not. It proposes a compromise between different political viewpoints and approaches – balance, moderation, until it disintegrates in the vacuum of possessing no political intent, direction or character at all, and until the voices of the marginalised and oppressed are drowned out by appeals to the ‘ordinary’ (implicitly non-minority) students.

Unions don’t exist to represent a range of political viewpoints as such, but rather to specifically represent our collective material interests – which are always in contradiction with the interests of marketisation, which cuts staff pay, cuts departments and courses, squeezes our student services, attacks our bursaries, and privatises and escalates the rents of our halls. The balance of political views is the means of a union’s activities, not the object – which is working class struggle, and challenging the power of bosses over services and production processes.

Indeed, we might ask how a union can both represent the radical left and conservatives whilst also acknowledging the complete, irreconcilable polarity in the political projects we agitate towards. The liberal conception of ‘representation’ thus attempts to erase the fact there are political interests at play, and assert that with sufficient reasoned debate on the conference floor we might reach ends that benefit all of us. This is not true. Naturally, we must accommodate a diverse range of political opinions, but we do ourselves no favours by pretending everyone can win out. It’s a ludicrous scenario when a speaker is clapped at conference for proudly proclaiming themselves a Tory – a supporter of a government responsible for inflicting severe structural violence on the marginalised; cutting benefits that the sick, disabled and vulnerable rely upon; a government that jubilantly cheered airstrikes in Syria and then voted against providing sanctuary to 3000 lone child refugees; that deports and detains thousands of migrants and leaves others to drown in the Mediterranean.

Historically, unions have existed to represent their members against, not within, the logic imposed on them by managers and the powers-that-be. One classical example from the history of more radical trade unionism would be the call for a reduced working week. Such unionism has recognised wage labour as a site of exploitation, and that its unnecessary control over every aspect of our lives should be mitigated and dispersed without our material wellbeing suffering. This is rooted in a clear understanding of the political and economic forces that regulate our work, our housing, our relationship to goods and services, and the world at large: a fundamental tension between the rich and powerful who own and control the distribution of these resources, and the working class who produce all the wealth and goods and are dispossessed of full access to them.

This theoretical conception is entirely relevant to our universities and colleges. Those who perform the intellectual labour of teaching, those who clean its halls and buildings, the students who comprise the vast majority of any university community, are all disenfranchised from real control over the content and democratic structures of universities and colleges in favour of the dictates of vice-chancellors and an elite layer of bureaucrats and corporate managers, on combined salaries of tens of millions of pounds, presiding over the continued marketisation and privatisation of our education. This rift has been deepened by austerity, shoring up the prosperity of the wealthy at the expense of our public services, benefits, wages and living standards.

This bureaucratisation, corporatisation and professionalisation has too seeped into union structures themselves, such that they routinely – and passively – appeal solely for a slight adjustment in the terms and conditions of the basic social contract rather than challenging the contract itself. Both student unions and trade unions have been de-fanged, themselves constrained by bureaucracy, regulated by unelected executives and trustees, and endorsing closed-door negotiations with vice-chancellors and government – the hallowed ‘seat at the table’ – as the primary and predominant form of political agency. Those who reject this kind of negotiation as completely ineffective in the absence of grassroots pressure are considered ‘naïve’ and ‘idealists’, and yet the idea that negotiation could stop such a ruthless government, or that we can persuade managers – against their vested interests and overwhelming institutional and market pressures – to overturn the neoliberalisation process, is considered ‘pragmatism’. There is a logical disconnect here.

We must recognise that we inhabit a distinctly political reality, confronting distinctly political projects such as austerity – how we respond is necessarily political, but it also must be political if we are to be effective. The conservatives’ attempt to frame themselves as the ‘post-ideological’ choice, the neutral alternative and natural antidote to the detached, ‘hysterical’ clique of no-platforming, freedom-despising lefties, is deeply insincere. The endorsement of ‘neutrality’ means a perpetuation of subservience to the programmes of marketisation and privatisation that threaten our education, NHS, and all our public services. We cannot simply negotiate our way out of that conflict, nor gloss over the fact that conflict constitutes our reality – we actively defend ourselves, or we capitulate. None of this is to say the ‘seat at the table’ does not or cannot have a role – simply that it only has power and gravity when reinforced by significant grassroots pressure and mobilisation. Unions have always existed to facilitate and organise such mobilisation against a managerial class which exploits us and whose overriding and primary interests are those of private gain and profit.

There absolutely are issues with the representative functions of the NUS, not least its lack of engagement with the embattled further education (FE) sector (although oddly enough few of those delegates recognising the NUS as unrepresentative of the ‘ordinary student’ voted Sahaya James for union development, whose key pledge was developing FE unions to support the primary demographic in the union’s ‘missing members’.)

The NUS is also deeply undemocratic, and furthermore we should be critical of the liberal identity politics which pervade its liberation practices – not least because its political orientations, often advocating processes of individual purification and insular prefiguration, can be instrumentalised by the right (and even by bosses) because they do not confront or threaten dominant power structures themselves. That is to say, a liberatory project which bases itself solely upon withdrawing into rigorously regulated spaces, bounded by a predefined framework of correct, ‘right-on’, ‘safe’ ideas and principles to which everyone must adhere under threat of exclusion, and where your identity is the only determinant of your political validity, is not constructive (this was perhaps best reflected in the NUS’s decision to pull support for the Free Education demo in 2014 on the grounds of ‘safety concerns’).

There are also problems with anti-Semitism on the left, and in the world at large – and although the right’s cynical attempts to weaponise these concerns for their own political ends (despite their ideology being predicated upon hierarchy and inequality) should be exposed, nor should the problem itself be undermined by approaching it entirely as a fabrication. A genuine left intervention is necessary in all these debates.

However, the conservative worldview proposed by the current disaffiliation campaign simply promotes an entrenchment of the lack of democracy in the NUS, not a break from it – because it projects the NUS as a passive consumer watchdog dominated by managerial bureaucracies and commercial agendas, more concerned with optimising so-called ‘cost-effectiveness’, ‘value for money’ and ‘professionalism’ rather than engaging in campaigning and struggle which directly improves the conditions of students. The conservatives do not share our vision of a genuinely directly democratic and participatory union – one that is actively and collectively controlled by all its members. Democracy, to them, is a technical point, not a moral one – it is instrumental, a means to eviscerate rather than facilitate subversive political functions. Their rhetoric might almost lure us into believing that Tories, and not genuinely structurally oppressed people, are the minority suffering educational and society-wide underrepresentation.

Their appeals to the ‘censorship’ and ‘lack of democracy’ perpetrated by minorities and left-wingers are simply an attempt to conceal and naturalise a reality already subordinated to market interests and power relations, both within and outside the NUS. They would contend representation and politics are always in tension: that if the NUS is truly to represent all its members it cannot assume political positions. We must argue they are fundamentally intertwined: that in order to represent and defend the collective material interests and rights of their members, unions must be actively political in order to grapple with the political realities that marginalise and exploit us.

Conservative attempts to rid representation – and unions – of politics is disingenuous because doing so entails an incorporation into the status quo. Faux-neutrality is a political reality of business unions controlled by unelected trustees and executives, and deferential to government, university and corporate authorities. Representation can never be effective in the absence of politics – representation is an outlet for the expression of grassroots political will, not an end or goal in and of itself. If it seeks only to channel voices as simple by-products of prevailing conditions, and not to empower us to seize our own collective voice to intervene in those conditions, it is useless. The NUS has a proud history of strikes, demonstrations, antifascism and militancy, supporting labour and anti-apartheid struggles, and mobilising against grant cuts and tuition fees – we must celebrate and extend that history, not erase it.

The NUS must represent its members not as consumers and customers, but engage them as agents and autonomous social actors. To construct the enigma of the ‘ordinary student’ as an unenlightened, passive, pacified mass subject capable only of self-interest, concerned only with the content of club nights, leisure options and the discounts provided by their NUS extra card, is deeply condescending, offensive, misguided and fatalistic. A call for the representation of ‘ordinary students’ as consumers is indeed the call for their active disengagement, their disconnection from real political involvement and democratic participation in defence of our common interests. It is an ossification of the very logic that lures people into the belief that we do not need unions in the first place. Unions must be political bodies.

The conservative cliques hoping to force-through disaffiliation motions are simply unable to process the notion that their worldview does not embody the student ‘common sense’ or reflect our best interests, and is in itself deeply ideological and political in its vision of the NUS and student unions as ‘student experience’ departments. Whatever flaws we may identify with the NUS, it is clear we cannot leave on these reactionary terms, and in a context where the battles ahead – with Prevent, the HE white paper, and with a government intent on dismantling our hard-won rights and public services – require our unity.