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!

Why Are We Boycotting the National Student Survey?


What is the NSS boycott?

The National Student Survey (NSS) is a questionnaire final-year undergraduate students are encouraged to fill out, ostensibly to measure ‘student satisfaction’ with their course. Following a motion passed at NUS conference this year, students across the country will be campaigning to boycott the Survey when it opens in January 2017. This is part of a wider strategy to stop the higher education reforms currently rolling through parliament, by jamming one of the reform’s key mechanisms.

The boycott as a tactic to stop the HE reforms

The Survey itself is a terrible series of metrics for measuring teaching quality – but that’s not the central reason for the boycott strategy. Primarily, the boycott is a tactic being utilised in a wider campaign to stop the government’s higher education reforms.  

The whole student movement – along with the largest academic union – is united in opposition to the HE reforms, which are forcing marketisation on the university sector, raising tuition fees, and allowing private providers further access to education provision. They constitute a wide-ranging assault on the principles of free, liberated, critical education.

To stop this legislation in its tracks, we need some leverage. Persuading and lobbying government ministers is a tried and failed strategy; the government are intent in ramming these reforms through, and at the moment we are failing to stop them. As Marco Giugni, a scholar of social movements from the University of Geneva puts it, “the power to disrupt the institutions and, more generally, the society is the principal resource that social movements have at their disposal to produce a political impact”. We need to rebalance the power asymmetry facing us by mobilising large numbers of students in an attempt to jam the mechanisms that are essential to the reform’s smooth functioning.

Why boycotting the NSS will give us leverage

The scores of the NSS are an integral part of the system of marketisation, metrics and magic tricks being imposed on higher education. They will be directly related to the right of universities to raise tuition fees (as the scores contribute to universities’ ranking in the Teaching Excellence Framework [TEF], and institutions which rank highly on the TEF will have the right to raise fees).

The NSS can only work if the data it produces has some credibility. Ipsos MORI, the company which runs the Survey, refuses to use data from universities which fail to get 50% of their students to fill out the Survey over a number of years. If we can drive down participation in the Survey below 50% (this may take a sustained boycott over two or more years) then the data will be officially junk, unable to be used. Achieving this doesn’t require uniform engagement with the boycott by all students and all unions; the level of participation required for tactical success is well within the abilities of the NUS and NCAFC to achieve. UCU, the largest academic union, is also in favour of the tactic, opening up copious opportunities for effective student-staff solidarity.

If we can wreck the Survey’s data, it will have a number of effects, including rendering one of the prime measures used in calculating the TEF (a central part of the marketisation of higher education) useless, harming the government’s efforts to impose competition on the sector. It will also incentivise those universities with strong boycott campaigns on campus to pressure the government to enter into negotiations with the student movement. Universities where less than 50% of students fill in the Survey will be unable to raise tuition fees, giving them a strong financial interest in a seeing a settlement between students and government.

Crucially, the NSS boycott is no panacea, a one-off golden bullet aimed at the heart of the HE reforms. It will probably have to be performed over a number of years, and will have to be combined with a range of other tactics, from a local to a national level: information events, national demos, direct action and more. But the NSS boycott is a major tactical innovation with real potential for our struggle.

Over two thousand students sign open letter demanding Sheffield opts out of TEF


By Josh Berlyne

Over 2,300 students have signed an open letter demanding that the University of Sheffield opts out of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).  For the past month and a half, the SU-led Shef Better Than TEF campaign has been collecting signatures and raising awareness of the government’s proposed higher education (HE) reforms.

The HE reforms threaten the very existence of public higher education.  Government have explicitly said that they will not step in if public universities collapse, while they are helping private companies into the market.  All this is being done on the basis of almost no evidence, just the mantra “competition drives up quality.”  Finally, the TEF purports to measure teaching on the basis of metrics which do not directly measure teaching quality.  Universities that perform well on TEF will be allowed to raise their fees above the £9,000 threshold, and there have been recent hints that universities which perform badly on TEF will have restrictions on the number of international students they can take on.  These are regressive policies.

Unlike most reforms, the TEF is optional—university bosses have the choice whether to opt in or out of the framework.  Sheffield SU has been campaigning hard to convince the University to opt out.  This is an uphill struggle, however. 

Despite the fact that our Vice-Chancellor is vocally opposed to the HE reforms, and despite the fact that he supports free, fully-funded higher education, it is not in his material interests to take concrete action and opt out.  When the SU officers presented the open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, his response was that we should collect more signatures.  He wants a joint statement with the SU, and potentially to turn this into a national campaign.  And yet he remains closeted about whether the University will opt out.  It is entirely consistent, in his eyes, to campaign against the reforms while also participating in them.

This is because universities, run like businesses, must think of their short-term interests.  It doesn’t matter that the long-term future of higher education is under threat.  If they cannot raise their fees in the short-term, their budgets will be squeezed and life will get a little harder.  Unions will get more militant.  Students more angry.  Top salaries might even need to be cut.  No university wants to be the only one to opt out, so they will all opt in.

This is why an escalation of the campaign is necessary.  An open letter is not enough – we need demonstrations and more.  Thanks to demands from Free University of Sheffield activists, the campaign is being democratised—with strategy meetings open to all.  We hope that this will encourage new activists to get involved, and give it the energy it very much needs to ramp up the campaign.

Boycott the NSS!

The NUS has announced that it will be organising a nationwide boycott of the National Student Survey, as advocated by NCAFC. We welcome this decision as an opportunity to broaden the campaign against the higher education reforms.

It’s now the task of activists to vigorously promote the boycott on their campuses. For the campaign to be effective, it will require mass participation – we need to put all our efforts into mobilising students.

The NSS will be launched in January. In the coming months, it is critical that activists make the case for the boycott, publicise the boycott widely, and collect pledges from final year undergraduates. By the time the NSS is launched, it should be common knowledge on your campus that there will be a boycott, it should be common sense to boycott it, and indeed as many third years as possible should already be signed up to do so.

It is also important that we are clear on the purpose and the politics of the boycott. Its purpose is to give our movement enough leverage to force the government to make concessions in negotiations. Its politics should be to oppose the higher education reforms as a whole. It is concerning that the VP HE’s announcement focuses so narrowly on fees. Opposing the HE reforms as a whole is what NUS National Conference voted for, and it is what is politically necessary. Fees are not the only issue. Moreover, they cannot be divorced or isolated from the wider changes taking place.

Government reforms since 2010 are turning UK higher education into a market. We are now at a crossroads. The latest round of HE reforms are the final piece of the puzzle: raising fees further and relaxing rules on private providers, in an attempt to force competition in higher education. But competition will drive up fees while driving down quality, and working conditions for academics will get worse.

For the past six years, our movement has opposed these changes. We have tried lobbying MPs and lobbying government; we’ve tried demonstrations and occupations. Now is the time to directly disrupt the market.

The NSS is a key mechanism: it informs league tables, is used to monitor staff, and will be a key metric in the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). So even before it is used in the TEF, it relies on students participating, which gives us power. If we choose not to participate – if we choose to boycott – we exercise our power. It’s critical that we use that power now.

NSS: NCAFC and FACE back a boycott!

Both NCAFC and Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (FACE) back a boycott of the National Student Survey.

NUS is now committed to disrupting the National Student Survey (NSS) thanks to policy passed at National Conference. Sorana Vieru, Vice President Higher Education, has recently launched a consultation on the precise tactic to be taken: full boycott, partial boycott or sabotage. NCAFC and FACE back an outright boycott.

It’s the common sense option. Both a sabotage and partial boycott are overly complicated and overly “clever.” With a simple strategy (boycott the NSS!) and simple demands (stop the higher education reforms!) we can beat the government.

Lots of people will get behind it. Only a whole mass of people engaging in this will work. We don’t want just 70 or 100 students per institution. We want a whole movement—that means hundreds of people boycotting at each university. With a simple message and simple demands, we can do that.

It reduces engagement with the NSS—a good thing in itself! The NSS has been shown to systematically discriminate against black teachers, and it most likely discriminates against female teachers too. It’s used to bully staff, and SUs are held to ransom with it, with a large block grant being dependent on high satisfaction scores. If it comes to a boycott, then reducing engagement can only be a good thing.

Let’s issue the government an ultimatum—they stop the HE reforms, or we boycott the NSS!

* * *

In depth: why full boycott?

Pruning junk data

Ipsos MORI already have a policy to remove junk data from the NSS. Year on year the number of students giving uniform answers on the NSS has increased. Over 5% of students now tick the same answer for every question, and more generally students are giving more similar answers for each question. This is known as junk data. Ipsos MORI, the polling company which carries out the NSS, are well aware of this problem. They have a policy to “prune” junk data – that is, they are prepared to remove uniformly-answered surveys. It seems likely they would counter a “sabotage” campaign by publicly saying they will remove junk data.

Participation and impact

Maximising participation is absolutely key. We need tens of thousands of students to carry out the action. People will find out about the action through a variety of channels – not just from their SU, or campus campaigners, but directly from the national conversation via the press, twitter, etc. Therefore the strategy needs to be dead simple. It will be harder to explain and convey a skewed-marks strategy. You can completely explain “boycott NSS” in two words, that’s all someone needs to see on a poster, a news headline, a hashtag, whatever, to know everything they need to participate. Sabotage is more complicated: you have to get someone to hear out an entire instruction. Abstaining on NSS Q1-12 is even more complicated, and will need a full conversation to explain: “We want you to boycott the first 12 questions, because they’re used in TEF, but you can fill out the others. Why? Well…”

Second, if we go with boycott it is easier for everyone to understand the impact we are asking them to make. In other words, we don’t want a strategy which tries to be too “clever.” The idea behind a boycott is easy to grasp – the survey will be useless if none of us fills it out – and the outcomes will match expectations. It is much more difficult to understand the impact of the sabotage option: “If we give them junk data it might skew the results, making them unusable, but if they don’t use the data, then it’s like it was a boycott anyway”. If Ipsos MORI respond by saying they have removed the junk data and the sabotage was ineffectual, people will be confused. We want the tactic to be incredibly simple and easy-to-grasp without thought. There’s a risk of exacerbating separation into a layer of informed activists who are pleased with playing a clever game with the enemy, and everyone else looking on passively. Boycott is more “equalising.”

Third, boycott will give us simpler numbers and much better headlines. “60% of students did not fill out the NSS” is clear, dramatic and impressive. It allows us to take those who wouldn’t have filled out the survey anyway, and encourage them to reframe what would have been an act of laziness or apathy as a political choice. A sabotage or abstention on Q1-12 would give much more complicated results: “30% of students just didn’t fill in the survey and another 30% participated in our wrecking/abstention strategy” isn’t such a powerful claim and our opposition could use it against us.

We also have no idea how Ipsos MORI will be able to spin the numbers when they excise the data. Imagine 70% of people fill out the survey: 25% wreck or abstain on Q1-12, 45% give genuine responses, and 30% just don’t fill it out at all. Ipsos MORI could spin these numbers lots of ways: “70% response rate!” or “75% did not participate in the wrecking/abstention strategy” (75% being true fill-outs plus people who didn’t bother to engage at all). If you convert those “junk data” participants to boycotters, you can’t argue with, or spin, “55% of students did not fill out the NSS”.

Fourth – and this is really important – boycott involves students engaging less with the survey. Our campaign will be met with a propaganda war from Ipsos MORI and universities. Every point at which a student engages with the NSS is a point at which they can be persuaded back. Ipsos MORI will be bombarding them with propaganda about how their opinion matters, don’t sell off your voice, etc. The survey page will probably be covered in pleas about how important it is to give real answers, how junk data is only hurting themselves, students and staff. When people log in to fill out junk data, they will have to engage with that, and at least some people – we don’t want to speculate too much – will be turned by it, give in and fill out real data at the last minute. By contrast, boycotters can cut the NSS out of their lives, ignore the material and therefore ignore the propaganda. So there is less chance of them turning back after we persuade them once.

Last of all, we need to be very clear that the boycott is a negotiating ultimatum. We are boycotting unless and until the government backs down on the reforms. We are not simply boycotting the NSS because it’s bad – even though it is – but because we are using it as a way to coerce the government. That logically means that if the reforms are withdrawn, or repealed, we stop boycotting. Like a strike – we go back to work if our demands are fulfilled. We must be clear about why they’re doing it and that we aren’t just lashing out at things we don’t like – we have a strategy. This does mean that if the government offers us a deal, there needs to be democratic process and consultation about whether we feel it’s enough to end the boycott.

We’re asking you to respond to the consultation and advocate a boycott. The consultation ends on August 17th.

Call out – Stop Arming Israel Demo


In Lichfield, north of Birmingham, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems manufactures engines for drones which are likely deployed by the IDF in Gaza. For several years, activist groups have targeted the factory demanding its closure and the end of UK complicity in Israel’s crimes in the occupied territories, most prominently at last year’s Block the Factory action.

The rally, organised by Birmingham Palestine Action and members of Warwick For Free Education, is intended to shut the factory down through a legal, non-violent show of force, and is set for July 6, the two-year anniversary of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. BPA have called for as much noise as possible so bring pots, pans, megaphones and air-horns – also bring red, green, black and white ribbons to tie on the fence, as well as kites to fly.

The Elbit factory, UAV ENGINES, is a five-minute walk from Shenstone railway station which is on the Longbridge Lichfield cross city line. Trains are every 15 minutes from Birmingham New Street station.

For more information and resources, see the Facebook event: Click attending, invite as many friends as possible, notify local Palestinian solidarity groups and come along on July 6, 11AM!

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.