Jordan Kenny doesn’t speak for Bath students

This was originally posted by Bath Students Against Fees & Cuts – NCAFC has re-posted it at the request of that group. BSAFC is a group of students in Bath campaigning for free, accessible education!

BSAFC logoAt Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts, we were disappointed to observe University of Bath Students’ Union President Jordan Kenny’s behaviour over the last week. Firstly, he led the publication of a misleading open letter to the NUS NEC regarding recent events surrounding NUS affiliation to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Coca Cola sponsorship of NUS events, and followed it up with a bizarre, self-aggrandising statement on his involvement in the NEC and his claims to represent the student voice.

The University of Bath students amongst us would like to make it clear that Kenny does not represent our views to the NUS NEC, and we do not believe that Bath SU had a mandate from students to issue the letter in question. We were amused to read of the importance Kenny places on accountability and representation, since we believe he has a record of ignoring the student voice and results of SU-run polls when the outcomes contradict his own opinions. Bath SU has no democratically elected executive to hold the SU officers to account and no general meetings where student members can vote on or inform SU policy – the very least you might expect from a so-called democratic organisation. Our calls for the establishment of a student council have been dismissed, while in the absence of any forum for discussion, the best the SU has been willing to offer are ‘indicative polls’, though it fails to advertise them and buries them inaccessibly within the SU webpage. Notably, despite 86% of respondents replying ‘yes’ to a poll asking whether Bath SU should support last year’s free education demo, the SU took no action. Perhaps Mr Kenny’s lack of exposure to democratic accountability at his own SU could explain his inability, or unwillingness, to understand it within the NUS.

A bit of background:

In August 2014, the NUS voted to become affiliated to the BDS movement, a campaign designed to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to end the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. Coca Cola, represented by the Central Bottling Company Ltd in Israel, operates factories within illegal Israeli settlements, and thus Coca Cola products fall under the remit of BDS.

Whether BDS is an effective tactic in ending illegal Israeli occupations is much debated, but nonetheless, having passed the motion we believe the NUS should stand by it. However, the current president of the NUS, Megan Dunn, chose to ignore NUS policy and accepted Coca Cola sponsorship of the NUS annual awards ceremony.

As a direct result of her actions, a motion was passed at NUS NEC to censure the president, an action which represents a serious criticism and display of disapproval. BSAFC welcomed this news, as we believe union democracy deserves to be upheld and that officers should be held accountable for their actions. Jordan Kenny’s defence of an NUS president who wilfully ignores the voice of her organisation is a disappointing but unsurprising stance.

Read more here:

NCAFC endorses Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader

Corbyn picket lineNCAFC is a cross-party (and no party) political alliance. We have members in many different electoral organisations, including Labour, the Greens, Left Unity and others, and members in no electoral organisation – united by shared goals and principles and a willingness to debate and discuss our differences, including our attitudes to electoral politics.

Nevertheless, we cannot and should not say that it is irrelevant to us, as an anti-austerity campaign, that a socialist who stands for many of our principles and has long been a prominent ally to left-wing struggles in education and beyond – Jeremy Corbyn – is credibly contesting the leadership of the main parliamentary opposition party.

Corbyn’s platform is not merely the “least bad” of the contenders – it represents a significant break with the right-wing factions that have controlled the leadership for a long time and that are represented by his rivals.

Most importantly for NCAFC, in education Corbyn proposes to restore maintenance grants and scrap tuition fees, at least for UK students – this was his campaign’s first formal policy announcement. That will help us to shift political debate about education funding onto our terrain both within Labour and more widely, especially if Corbyn does well in the vote.

More broadly, Corbyn’s platform stands for ending austerity, and taxing the wealthiest in our society to shift the burden onto big business and the rich. He led the rebellion of 48 Labour MPs to oppose the government’s brutal attacks on welfare claimants.

The response to this left-wing platform has been huge, and Corbyn’s candidacy has become the focal point of a substantial campaign of supporters. He now leads the polls on first preferences, and some polls predict a win. We are under no illusions that installing a new leader could, on its own, transform the Labour Party, but this is nevertheless a very significant development. (As part of working beyond the leadership contest, we encourage Labour members who agree with our stance on fees and grants to join the Labour Campaign for Free Education, which is affiliated to NCAFC.)

Corbyn should not be uncritically supported. NCAFC encourages him to go further than he has, and commit to both introducing grants and abolishing fees for international as well as UK students, at all levels of further and higher education. And many of our members, including firm Corbyn supporters, have various other political disagreements with him. These should be discussed, not shied away from. Nonetheless, NCAFC believes that fully supporting Corbyn in this election is the only reasonable choice for Labour members and supporters who share NCAFC’s goals and principles.

NCAFC includes both many Labour Party members, and many others who don’t agree that joining Labour is the best course for left-wing activists, regardless of current events in the leadership contest. After discussion among our members and a vote of our National Committee, NCAFC has decided to endorse Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, although we take no position on whether activists should become Labour members or supporters to vote for Corbyn. We invite NCAFC members to keep debating this question, including by writing opinion articles for anticuts.com.

If you do want to vote for Corbyn, you can do so by joining Labour as a full member or becoming Labour supporter, or if you are in a Labour-affiliated trade union you can sign up to vote for free. The deadline to sign up is 12 noon on 12 August. More details can be found on Corbyn’s campaign website.

Campaigning against the “Teaching Excellence Framework”

At Sheffield Uni today, Free University of Sheffield activists were protesting the so-called “Teaching Excellence Framework”  during a visit by policy advisers from the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (which has authority over higher education), who had come to consult with managers on developing the TEF – an initiative which aims to intensify expolitation and pressurisation of teaching staff, and to further marketise education – and could see tuition fees rise again. You can read more about the TEF here.

The leaflet they handed out is below, and they’ve made it available to anyone who wants to campaign against the TEF. Feel free to share, copy, plagiarise or edit. Let’s stop the TEF before it becomes a reality!


Click for full quality PDF:

tef-leaflet-sheff-img (450x318)

 

 

Text:

WE DON’T WANT THE TEF

The government are planning to introduce league tables for teaching. When they introduced these for research they were a disaster.

STUDENTS WANT BETTER TEACHING but a REF for teaching won’t make any improvements. As research funding becomes more and more scarce, the REF has led to intense competition between universities and the bullying of junior academics. We fear the TEF will do the same.

THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN. The dysfunctional relationship between teaching and research in universities is well-documented by scholars such as Angela Brew and Mike Neary. The current model excludes students from membership of the academic community. Furthermore, the division between teaching and research threatens the very idea of the university, as some politicians have suggested that the two activities could be split between universities: for example, the University of Sheffield might become a research institute, while Sheffield Hallam becomes a teaching centre.

MONEY DOESN’T IMPROVE TEACHING. Introducing a financial incentive to teaching will only make this problem worse. The divide between teaching and research will grow, and the quality of teaching will drop. Money can’t solve the problem: structural change is needed. Audits like the TEF give the impression of improvements while pushing the situation close to unsalvageable. Instead of the TEF we need research-engaged teaching; instead of audits, we need greater university autonomy.

WE DON’T WANT HIGHER FEES. The government have suggested that institutions will be rewarded for their teaching “excellence” with the opportunity to increase their fees. No student wants higher fees. We want free education, for everyone. Higher fees at elite institutions will exclude those who are already marginalised. Black, working-class communities will be most affected.

LIKE ANY AUDIT, UNIVERSITIES WILL GAME THE TEF. Higher Education policy commentators have said that the TEF needs to be “ungameable”. This simply isn’t possible. Using metrics for analysing performance is the only cost-effective way to carry out such an audit. However, teaching quality is not something which can easily be converted into metrics. It doesn’t lend itself well to conversion into numerical data.

SUPPORT ACADEMIC STAFF. Perhaps most importantly, there are serious fears over the impact the TEF will have on academic staff. Increased pressure will lead to staff being overworked. The greatest burden will fall on PhD students and junior members of staff. Currently PhD students are effectively paid below the minimum wage and their workload is incredible. More work and more pressure is simply unacceptable and unsustainable.

THE TEF IS PART OF A WIDER PLAN which seeks to place the burden of austerity on the young, the unemployed and the disabled. The financial incentives for TEF performance is an attempt to distract from the swingeing cuts implemented by this government. The audit is a poor attempt to make students feel valued in an environment which increasingly leaves us disillusioned and disheartened.

AUDITS DON’T IMPROVE EDUCATION. WE DON’T NEED AN OFSTED FOR UNIVERSITIES. REJECT THE TEACHING EXCELLENCE FRAMEWORK.

 

The Tory budget announces higher fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants

Rich Universities like Oxford will be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation

Rich Universities like Oxford will be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation

James Elliott, NCAFC National Committee

George Osborne announced the Tories’ latest attack on higher education in today’s budget, announcing that for some institutions fees will rise in line with inflation, and also that grants will be abolished for the poorest students.

Osborne’s budget document states measures will, “include allowing institutions offering high teaching quality to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, with a consultation on the mechanisms to do this.”

This is in line with concerns about new Universities Minister Jo Johnson’s speech to Universities UK last week, where he talked about ‘incentives’ for quality teaching, and said that they will be published in a Green Paper in the autumn, usually a precursor to primary legislation – in the form of a bill that will become an Act of Parliament. Tuition fee hikes require such an Act, so this was a clear indicator from Johnson that this could happen.

This is directly linked to Jo Johnson’s Teaching Excellence Framework, which will assess the teaching quality at institutions based on ‘outcome-focused’ metrics which Johnson explicitly said will include employment data. This is likely to mean that graduate earnings will be used to “prove” quality teaching, and that those institutions where students go on to get the best-paying jobs such as Oxford, Cambridge and London colleges, will be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation.

The Times Higher Education’s John Morgan analysed what this might mean, predicting that once the Conservatives have passed “English Votes for English Laws”, they may be in a better position to get a rise in fees for English universities through Parliament, and then those that do well in his new Teaching Excellence Framework may be allowed to raise fees.

The other, uglier possibility of this, is that Johnson and Osborne are openly goading students and the NUS with the talk of higher fees to see what our response is, and if it is muted silence and a few grumbles – they will give in to what their Vice-Chancellor friends have been demanding for years, and allow a rise in fees to £11,000 (Labour’s guess at Tories’ desires before the election), £16,000 (Oxford’s demand), or beyond that towards uncapped fees (as the Browne report in 2010 recommended).

In addition to this news on fees, Osborne announced a cut in grants. The Budget stated, “From the 2016‐17 academic year, maintenance grants will be replaced with maintenance loans for new students from England, paid back only when their earnings exceed £21,000 a year, saving £2.5 billion by 2020‐21.” Currently, students in England and Wales from families with annual household incomes of £25,000 or less qualify for maintenance grants of £3,387 a year, then if the family’s income is £30,000, the grant falls to £2,441; at £35,000 to £1,494 and at £40,000 to £547. It is not paid when household income is more than £42,620. This is a direct swipe at the poorest students in education, and makes a mockery of Tories’ talk about ‘access’ and increasing the number of working-class students in education by 2020.

Naturally, in NCAFC we think that all problems caused by the rising costs of student loans and the expanding costs of education as more people continue study can be solved easily: by taking the vast amounts of wealth in the pockets of the rich and business into democratic control by heavily taxing them and using those taxes to pay for high-quality, lifelong learning for everyone. Education should be free to all, including living grants, so that students leave without debt.

That vision is anathema to the party of finance capital, and ‘too radical’ for the increasingly-conservative Labour leadership. We will only see the society we want if we resist these attacks on education, starting with this budget announcement.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Students Call National Demonstration as Osborne Slashes Maintenance Grant

 

Contact: 07989235178, 07919425137

 

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has called a national demonstration for November 4 under the slogans “Free Education & Living Grants for all: no barriers, no borders, no business!”

 

The announcement of the key demands comes as the first all-Conservative budget is read in Parliament today, bringing with it the slashing of maintenance grants for those from the poorest backgrounds.  The maintenance grant system currently offers £3,387 a year to students in England and Wales from families with annual household incomes of £25,000 or less, and decreases exponentially as household income rises.  Osborne will propose to replace this with an increased loan system.

 

The NCAFC is calling for non-means-tested living grants, a system which would mean that all students, regardless of household income, receive non-repayable grants to fund their living costs whilst studying.  This would be funded by taxing the rich and expropriation of the banks.

 

The demonstration will also demand an end to the scapegoating and deportation of international students and the defence of migrants’ rights and an end to the marketisation of education.

 

Raquel Palmeira, NCAFC LGBTQ Rep, said: “The Conservative government is destroying the education system as we know it, and replacing it with a fully marketised system which will take teenagers at one end and simply turn out people ready for jobs at the others.  We demand an education system free from the market, and one which is truly accessible to all – not only those who can afford it, and we will be taking to the streets in our hundreds of thousands to win this”

 

Tom Robinson, UCL Union Welfare & International Officer, said: “Students from lower income families are also those most put off by the notion of leaving education with a mountain of debt. We know that an overwhelming majority of students will never pay back their student debt; by its own logic the system of 9k fees has failed and it is utterly nonsensical that Osborne is planning to load students with more debt rather than admit this.”

 

Hope Worsdale, Warwick For Free Education and NCAFC National Committee, said: “This demonstration will provide a springboard for a new level of resistance. We have had successes in the past – such as on the student loan book sell-off and the HE Bill, which was dropped in 2012 – and we intend to fight for every inch of the education system and the wider welfare state. As this government makes sustained attacks on the working class, we will in turn show sustained resistance through direct action, strikes and occupations”

 

James Elliott, NUS Disabled Students’ Committee, said: “This budget forms part of an ideological attack on the working class.  While Osborne scraps maintenance grants, he also raises the threshold for inheritance tax to one million pounds – meaning that even fewer people will end up paying it.  It is clear that this budget serves only the interests of the rich.”

 

NOTES:

  1. The Facebook event for the demonstration: https://www.facebook.com/events/1449378505377525/
  2. More information on the demands of the demonstration; http://anticuts.com/2015/07/08/free-education-living-grants-for-all-no-barriers-no-borders-no-business/

Free Education & Living Grants for all: No Barriers // No Borders // No Business

London, UK. 19th Nov, 2014. Students march through central London to demand that politicians scrap tuition fees. The demonstration was organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and the Student Assembly Against Austerity with StudentNCAFC has called a National Demonstration that will march in London on 4 November (join the Facebook event) under the slogan “Free Education & Living Grants for all: No Barriers // No Borders // No Business”! Here’s why:

Free education means more than just the abolition of fees. It is a vision of a different education system and ultimately a different society. This is what we want to win.

No Barriers

Nobody should be denied an education at any level. This certainly means removing financial barriers but also ensuring that every student receives appropriate support. Education should no longer be a commodity for individual consumption: it should be a social good.  It should not be funded by placing an immense debt burden on students. Our goal is education to be funded by taxing the rich, to directly attack inequality that our society’s structure fosters.

  • Living grants for all

No student should have to live in poverty whilst doing their course. The student loan system, and its incompetence, means that many students struggle to meet the costs of living, and some even have to use food banks. University management have frequently cut bursaries and grants available to poorer students, on the grounds that ‘there is no money’ (except money for the bosses’ salaries apparently). We want living grants available at all levels of education for everyone. This includes extra grants for students with other needs, for example a universalised childcare grant and a grant for disabled students’, as well as an end to other disability benefit cuts. This is the only way to ensure that everyone has the means to access education.

  • Tax the Rich

In the UK, the poorest pay a higher share of their income in tax than the richest. The top rate of tax has decreased from 50% to 45%. The rich are not rich as a result of their own efforts, rather as a result of the labour of society. Their wealth rightfully belongs to us and we will not hesitate in taking it in order to fund the services people are dependent on, to access education and, necessarily, to live.

  • Expropriate the banks!

Banks are not neutral institutions. Currently they serve the interests of finance capital alone and benefit only the very richest. We want to place them under genuine public ownership and use the wealth they store in order invest in society as a whole, including in education that is currently underfunded.

No Borders

Our vision for education excludes no one. Nationality is no excuse to bar someone from the right to seek education. We want the abolition of all punitive laws that harm international students currently and open up all our institutions to everyone.

  • Education for all!

When we say free education, we mean for everyone. International student fees should be abolished, rather than these students being treated as cash cows by management. We want an immediate end to immigration policy which punishes international students for seeking education in the UK, including humiliating sign-ins and checks.

  • End to deportations

Deportations are an act of violence that cannot be justified. The government frequently deports people to situations which are life-threatening. This government has deported students such as Yashika Bageerathi and Majid Ali, the latter of whom is now feared dead. We demand an immediate end to all deportations.

  • End to detention centres

To confine people fleeing the horrors of war and atrocities in appalling conditions is barbarism.  Detention centres are prisons, they destroy people’s physical and mental health and are places where women experience sexual violence. Our objective is to shut down all detention centres and give all asylum seekers the opportunity to access education.

No Business

We utterly reject the exploitation inherent in education as a business. We stand in solidarity with all workers who are facing pay cuts and insecurity whilst university Vice Chancellors rake in ever higher salaries.  We reject universities spending thousands on rebranding whilst student services are removed. Our aim is to make education a social endeavour as opposed to a corporate one. We do this not on the assumption that education alone should be a social good, but rather to integrate our struggles with all workers’ struggles in society: to transform it.

 

  • Democratise our universities and colleges!

Education is currently a weapon of subjugation. We aim to make it our weapon for liberation. Our universities and colleges should be shaped by collective participation and not controlled by an unaccountable management. Workers and students should decide not only the content of the curriculum but also the structure of the university. This means an immediate end to the National Student Survey, which pits students and staff against each other, and a move towards more collaborative forms of feedback.

  • Living wage (at a minimum) for all who work for our institutions

Over half of universities don’t pay a living wage to workers. This is whilst some Vice Chancellors have salaries over £400k. The lack of living wage ties into the increasing casualisation of the workforce. 46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero hours contracts. We want that to be 0%. Zero hours contracts are an attack on the rights of workers. They demand that a worker be available at any time for the needs of the boss, without guaranteeing even a minimum of hours needed in order to meet the costs of living.

We reject the dictum that ‘there is no money’, we want an immediate end to the abhorrent exploitation of all workers in our institutions

  • Cops off campus

Cops are not protectors of peace, they are bearers of violence. Cops exist to serve the interests of private property, not people. They are not on our side. They have a record of violently repressing protest.  In December 2014 police used CS spray on Warwick protestors. Chile has already achieved a cops off campus policy. Control of our spaces, and police presence in them, should be in the hands of students and staff, not the management. We demand every cop out of our institutions.

 

If you agree, build a movement with us, organise on your campus and in your community, and join the demo on 4 November!

Statement on the death of FOSIS president Bashir Osman

bashirOn Saturday we heard of the tragic death of Bashir Osman. We send our condolences to his family, friends and those affected. Bashir died in a drowning accident in Switzerland. The news has touched many people including some of our membership. We would especially like to send our support and solidarity during this hard time to our friends in FOSIS.

Bashir was the president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) an organisation representing over 115000 Muslim students in the UK and Ireland. It is clear from the events of the last few days that Bashir was a wonderful person and was truly loved.

NCAFC NC member Mohammed Mumit commented’Bashir is the reason I’m involved. When I was very new to everything, Bashir took time out to support me. He told me to set a goal that was for the benefit of people. That I knew would not be achieved in my lifetime but to see it happen I should spare nothing. His words have stuck with me for years and have been the duel to my politics and drive. I owe a lot to Bashir. I will miss him’

NCAFC Black have said ‘Bashir was a charitable man. He would always do activities to fundraise, whether it was for schools or other good causes. His last project was for building wells. His friends want to honor his memory by finishing this project which was very important to him and are therefore asking for donations to it. If you cannot donate please share it to get it as far as possible.’

Rest in Power, Bashir

Students Threaten to become “Ungovernable” if fees raised.

PRESS RELEASE: Students Threaten to Become “Ungovernable” at Prospect of Fee Raise

Contact: 07989 235 178; 07919425137

Universities UK, the representative body for vice-chancellors in the UK, has today called or the nine thousand pound fee cap to be lifted in line with inflation so that the UK “can continue to provide high quality education that meets the needs of students.”

Janet Beer, vice-president of UUK, also stated that support for students’ living costs must also increase, and that maintaining the real terms value of the headline fee was essential to maintain the delivery of high quality learning experience for students.

In Parliament too, Universities Minister Jo Johnson refused to rule out a fee increase while answering questions in the House of Commons yesterday. In response to a question from Blairite former NUS President turned MP for Ilford North, Wes Streeting, on whether he could rule out changes in fees and repayments for existing students and graduates, he simply stated that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had praised the English fee system as sustainable.

Kelly Rogers, National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts Women’s Officer, said: “A raise in fees would be not just an attack on current students and those who are traditionally expected to go to university, it is an ideological attack to limit the ability of the working classes and those already marginalised to access education. We have seen unrest since the election of the Conservative government; I have no doubt that the student movement will become ungovernable if a fee raise is on the agenda.”

Hope Worsdale, NCAFC National Committee, said: “We have rebuilt the student movement over the past year. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has already called a mass demonstration on November 4 for Free Education and the student movement is now more than ever capable of defeating governmental attacks.”

James Elliott, NUS Disabled Students’ Committee, said: “The thought that the government could prepare for a fee raise is despicable. In 2010, the government saw mass revolt at the prospect of a fee raise and we will be mobilising in our hundreds of thousands to ensure that this does not happen again and further the fight for free education. ”

Advice for new student union officers!

We’re re-publishing this series of articles written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) will face as they enter their posts. These are just some of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering: an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It held on 5-6 September and will be free to attend. More information here.


 

Be prepared to fight university & college managers

You represent students, not bosses. One thing it’s vital to understand is that the various people with power over the things you want to change – from the director of your student well-being department, to a Vice-Chancellor, to a local councillor – are mostly working to fulfil different goals than the interests and desires of students (or education workers). That’s not to say they are consistently opposed – in some cases, our interests and goals more or less align with theirs. In these cases, you may be able to secure wins just by talking to the right people and saying the right things – or lining up the institutional powers that do agree with you against those that don’t. But if those things were the only things we wanted to win, we wouldn’t need unions.

We can’t win by sending a silver-tongued union officer into back-room chats with managers. It is naïve to think – as some of the student union movement seems to – that authority figures are so incredibly impressionable and incompetent that a few clever words from a student officer will make them act contrary to their goals and material interests. In these situations, the main power we can bring to bear is coercive, not persuasive. We have to force their hands, against their will, by making it more difficult to continue to oppose us than to do what we want. Tactics like occupations, disruptive protests on open days, strikes and other industrial action, and creating PR crises and negative media attention – most of which are based in collective action – are the key weapons in your arsenal. And you can’t just conjure these out of nothing when they’re needed, nor can you take them out of the box when you deem it tactically appropriate and then just put them back again – you need to nurture and maintain grassroots political organising among students constantly, and put them in control of action as much as you can (see below: “Continue to fight for your ideas and organise on campus”).

You don’t work for the college or university. Senior managers often seem to think that they can treat a student union as some sort of “student experience department” that works for them – you exist to provide entertainment and maybe some individualised welfare support, and to tick a box saying they listen to the “student voice” (just so long as it didn’t disagree with them). Unfortunately, that’s what university and college bosses often mean when they talk approvingly of “partnership” with student unions.

There’s nothing wrong with cooperating with management when their interests align with students’. But the student union doesn’t work for the institution. You may rely on the university or college for resources and possibly space. But in a democratic education system, all those resources would be under the control of students, staff, and the community. Senior management’s control is illegitimate, so the fact that they give some of it back to students in the form of a union block grant doesn’t mean the union legitimately owes them anything. Your work to maintain and increase that grant might include a presentation exercise of playing up those aspects of the union’s work that align with the interests of the people holding the purse-strings, but managers cannot be allowed to set the agenda.


 

Don’t let bureaucracy get in the way of democracy

It helps to think of there actually being two student unions. There’s the political union, which is a platform for students’ collective expression and action; and there’s the bureaucratic entity that’s legally recognised as the union, which may employ staff, hold bank accounts, maintain physical premises and so on. In most cases this is a charity, under the oversight of various laws and the Charities Commission.

The latter can be thought of as a shell for the former. The real union, and the political agenda set more-or-less democratically by its members, is what matters. The bureaucratic entity is a tool we can use to help pursue that agenda, because it allows us to wield important and powerful resources.

The legal structures aren’t suited to democratic, effective student unionism – in fact some of them were imposed to hold back our work. There’s an agenda and a set of values that you’re supposed to adhere to, that comes with the charity model, and none of it is very compatible with democracy. And in your induction as a union officer, someone may try to convince you that this model and its agenda are a good thing that you should embrace and buy into! Your job here becomes a balancing act.

Many officers succumb completely to this agenda, and happily take on their new role as a “responsible” trustee of an “apolitical” charity. The leadership of our movement, in the form of the NUS, does little to oppose this, and at worst it often actively embraces the constraints imposed on us by our institutions and a state both eager to hold back any political threat from organised students.

There is also a subtler problem, where officers don’t see themselves as buying into the agenda, but in practice become overly concerned with maintaining the shell and conforming to the model that’s expected of them, at the expense of democratic, activist student unionism. Recently, we’ve seen student union Trustee Boards quash democratic decisions, and officers who see themselves as radical leftists haven’t been immune to this either.

Some activists would rather sacrifice the resources to which these shells give us access rather than give an inch. Or they may respond to the bureaucratic nature of it all by trying to completely avoid the (sometimes mundane yet still necessary) tasks of maintaining and administrating the union. There’s an appealing spirit to this, but this would be a very serious loss that would ultimately make us weaker and worse off. Yes, the student movement desperately needs to put together a coherent challenge to the agenda that’s been imposed on us and fight to expand democratic rights for unions. But until we start – and win – that fight, we’re better off maintaining our shells and the resources that come with them, as long as we push the legal and bureaucratic envelope as far as possible to uphold democracy – and resist buying ideologically into the anti-political agenda.


 

Continue to fight for your ideas and organise on campus

Over and over again, in student unions and elsewhere, leftists have made the mistake of thinking that the key is simply to win leadership positions, and then once in post they can simply dictate a leftwing agenda. The reality is that your power is limited and even sabbatical officers on their own are not very important. It is not enough to have a sabbatical officer with the right political positions. It’s the membership of a union taking collective action that can force the hands of those in power. The right leadership helps, but is not enough.

Even when you’re in office, you need to keep putting the left agenda up for discussion in your union’s democratic structures (and then fighting to win those discussions and votes). We need to keep sparking debates and forcing people to think. A union with a left-wing leadership cannot achieve much without a politically conscious and active body of students. Discussion within the union is one essential way to build that.

Some left-wing union officers refrain from putting potentially controversial issues to (for instance) a General Assembly, in case they lose the debate and the vote. This kind of conservatism is bureaucratic and self-defeating.

Within the left, maintaining a strong degree of organisation is vital. Good campus activist groups are not just vehicles for getting left-wingers elected to union posts, though they should try to do that. They are the core body of activists who will make action happen on campus (with or without the union’s official backing), who will maintain a collective political memory and pass it on to the next cohort – and who can keep left-wingers grounded and accountable once they’re in the sabbatical office. Left-wingers who win full-time union positions should maintain and nurture these groups – and organise collectively with them.


 

Genuine democracy is participatory, not passive!

As a union officer, you will find yourself under pressure from those with a right-wing agenda dressed as “apolitical”, pushing for a “services” model of student unionism. In the debate over democracy, they will often sing the praises of “neutral” surveys as the ultimate arbiters of what the union should be doing.

It’s easy to see the appeal, when membership surveys can get high response rates. The logic seems to make sense: Surely anything that can get the input of more members is more democratic? But this kind of passive polling process is democratically deficient in important ways.

Democracy isn’t just a process of surveying the views of each member from the top down. Those views are not static or straightforward, nor do they fit neatly into the questions we ask. Real democracy is a participatory, collective process, in which the members of a community raise questions, discuss them and develop views in the course of interacting with each other. So we need to be concerned with who gets to set the questions and who gets to contribute to debate, not just to who ultimately gets to answer the question.

If they’re set up well, General Meetings and elected, accountable Union Councils have more potential for collective, participatory democracy than surveys or referenda (or even worse, “juries” of unelected, unaccountable students).

Surveys have some limited value as pieces of evidence, but resist arguments that the manifesto pledges and politics you won on, or decisions made after discussion by a Union Council or a General Assembly, are less legitimate than the results of a survey. And if participatory democratic structures don’t exist or are weak in your union, then fight to build them.


 

Take advice from staff, but be aware of your role as an elected officer

Most student unions employ at least some staff. So as a lead union officer, and possibly as a trustee of your union, you’re probably now to at least some degree a boss – which can be quite an awkward position.

You need to take this responsibility seriously. Unions (like anywhere else) should be decent places to work, with good pay and conditions. And you have to be respectful – for instance, expecting a staff member to stay late at work is not the same as asking an activist to give up their evening to work on a campaign.

However, there are some student unions where the agenda is set more by senior staff than students and student officers, and where senior managers have actively worked to clamp down on the agendas of left-wing officers.

More subtly, staff may be resistant to the directions that students want to take their unions. Union officers should take staff seriously, and consider their suggestions when making decisions. But you need to be able to put your foot down and insist that students’ unions are run by students – and elected accountable officers, not staff, should be making the final decisions.

Sabbatical officers are often told that this is “your year”, as if it’s all about us. This sometimes acts as a drive to keep horizons constrained and focus on goals and projects that are achievable in the short-term. The long-term direction of the union is hived off as a separate question, often framed as more “operational” than political, and so there is often a lot less democratic control or accountability. And especially in those unions controlled more by managers (or trustees who may not be students and may not be elected) than by elected officers, officers can be isolated from their predecessors and successors and organisational memory is concentrated in staff.

It’s better to think of yourself as one in a succession of temporary leaders of something that’s much bigger than you. In some ways this cuts you down to size, but in others it’s actually empowering. Embrace the fact that some things worth changing will take longer than a year – and satisfy yourself that if you can begin to make a good dent during your time in office and then hand over to someone who will keep up the work, that could be more valuable than attacking and resolving a simpler problem within a year. In order to ensure your good work has a chance of continuing, you will need to work with student activists outside the union office and to generate political discussion (see above: “Genuine democracy is participatory, not passive!”).

If you find yourself inheriting a project or cause you disagree with politically, don’t hesitate to end it – perhaps by pushing for a change in policy through the democratic structures.

This makes it even more important to hand over properly and to build the organisational memory of the union. At the end of your time in office, it’s not enough just to hand over operational details and contact lists – you need to give your successors an honest and full political appraisal of the situation on your campus, including recent issues and events and the progress and prospects of live campaigns and projects.

Reflections on the People’s Assembly #EndAusterityNow demo

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By Luke Dukinfield, University of Warwick

Just hours after Saturday’s End Austerity Now march finished, it was announced that the Tories had confirmed plans to cut £12 billion from the welfare bill.  Now I’m not suggesting that even the most incendiary protest could have swayed this decision, or the Tory’s ruthless and ideological quest to devastate any and all forms of social provision, but I think it emphasised a principle which was clarified in the Iraq War protests, which saw over a million people sweeping through the streets of London at its peak: the Government does not listen to us.  It does not care for our democratic, collective voice.  I overheard many people on Saturday’s march suggesting they were glad it remained peaceful because it meant their message was clearly conveyed to the Government and uncompromised by the ‘militant minority’.  This was one of the biggest, loudest, and most vibrant expressions of collective democratic will in the past few years, and the People’s Assembly would not have that thwarted by clandestine adventurists.  In fact, many of their leadership tweeted in support of the rooting out of these militants during the infiltration of a far-left gathering by Mail on Sunday journalists, who proceeded to publish an piece exposing ‘facemask anarchist plans to hijack peaceful demonstration’.  The People’s Assembly commented saying ‘no small unrepresentative group will be allowed to distract from this mass demonstration’, as if those who practice militant tactics cannot be conceptualized as legitimate protesters or even legitimate members of the community, that such tactics have no place within a mass movement. 

Not only is their implicit collaboration with the Daily Mail, a media outlet notorious for its racism, Islamophobia and oppressive propensities, and the betrayal of their own comrades for the preservation of positive media attention reprehensible, the narratives they are assimilating into are even more insidious.  Their reproduction of the reactionary ‘bad protestor vs good protestor’ dichotomy, propagated to moderate struggle, fragment movements and delegitimize effective disruptive action, is not only damaging, but reflects broader and deep-rooted flaws in the People’s Assembly as an organization.  It reflects their general conviction that resistance can only be legitimate if it is lawful, peaceful and respectable, and in doing so assimilates into the parameters of legitimacy established by the state to placate dissent.  As such protest is confined to genteel supplication and ritualized performances of discontent, sacrificing material force for the maintenance of mass appeal. 

We must challenge and deconstruct this: ‘mass appeal’, public consciousness, is moulded by the very material conditions we wish to contest; our conception of the potentialities of resistance are circumscribed by the power relations in which we are bound.  This not only means a systematically violent state generates discourses of moral legitimacy preoccupied with non-violence that are intended to limit struggle, but also that numerous structural barriers relative to accessibility, work, childcare, immigration status etc will have hampered people’s capacity to march on Saturday.  We must not struggle only within modalities dictated to us by the very power structures we are opposing.  We must not resist only in formats we are permitted.  Indeed, to suggest those willing to participate in militant action are an ‘unrepresentative minority’ disregards the very fact that it is the most oppressed who often feel their only option is to resort to these tactics to force change, the very people most impacted by austerity, the houseless squatting buildings, DPAC blockading the DWP and blocking roads, those rioting in Tottenham in 2011.  The majority of social movements in history, those that dismantled apartheid and racial segregation and resisted colonial expansion, would be deemed ‘unrepresentative’ and illegitimate by the People’s Assembly’s logic.  Is the desperation, the indignation, of the most oppressed a mere ‘distraction’? 

The People’s Assembly statement also reflects a fundamental misdirection in structuring our organizing around appeals to the state.  If there was ever an illusion that it was fashioned around our needs and not as a protective apparatus for capital, then with the institution of the Tories that must be dispelled.  Although we witnessed some scattered but inspiring resistance over the past five years, particularly the student movement of 2010, the riots of 2011, and the recent array of housing struggles (led by women and groups such as E15 Mothers), and we could argue that this resistance was not sufficiently robust to force concessions from the government – I also believe that with a Tory administration we cannot viably force such concessions.  They have mercilessly pursued their austerity agenda over the past five years, systematically driving people to starvation and suicide through sanctions, displacing and evicting tens of thousands of families from London through gentrification and speculative property development, incurring a 55% rise in homelessness as rents continue to soar, forcing hundreds of thousands to reliance on foodbanks, dismantling community centres and social services, routinely persecuting and withdrawing provision for disabled people, and presiding over an income stagnation and decline in living conditions more severe than any in recent history.  This violent neo-liberal programme will be implemented even more rigorously over the next 5 years, with the (for the most part willing accomplices) Liberal Democrats no longer in a coalition to restrain the worst excesses of the Tory regime, as the now majority Conservative government readies themselves to impose the Snooper’s Charter, anti-strike laws and to dismantle the European Bill of Human Rights. 

They have evidenced their commitment to austerity in five years of mass, systematic suffering, and have demonstrated no plans for clemency over the next five.  The only option that remains to us is dismantling this government.  We cannot do so through conciliatory supplications, spectacle-fixated marches, and symbolic expressions of anger, stultifying struggle in the same cycles of celebrity speeches, nebulous appeals to general strikes from union bureaucracies and permitted protest pageantries.  This government will not heed appeals to conscience, to clarity of message, but, as with all structures of power which necessarily function for their own self-aggrandizement, will respond only to intervention, only to force, only by our capacity to disrupt the processes which enrich its elites at our expense.  Ultimately, the only way we can truly effect change is by consolidating our movement as a mass, collective and material force capable of obstructing the circulation of capital, of sabotaging the mechanisms and structures of power, by militant, grassroots and autonomous struggle whose terms are not dictated by government and which is not contained within its boundaries and channels. 

We must imagine the possibilities of what we could have achieved if the 250,000 people there on Saturday expressed the same militancy and anger as the few thousand on the #FuckTheTories demo organized by London Black Revs, which saw riot police withdraw and their lines broken as they were pelted with missiles and their advances resisted, people de-arresting one another, and disrupting traffic.  The turnout was incredible and inspiring, but that groundswell is infused with a potential that must be harnessed rather than exhibited, that must be channelled and orientated towards confrontation, and not compromise, with external power structures.  We cannot rely upon the state, especially one so ruthlessly ideological, to end austerity for us.  We can only depend upon one another, our collective agency, our communal care and power.  A fetishization of the A-B march, and the principles of the People’s Assembly, are bound up in performative action to persuade and sway the government, and this is fundamentally misguided and self-defeating for a regime which is structured to systematically assault the conditions of the working class. 

That is not to say that grand A to B marches do not have their uses, that they do not draw people together, politicise them and disseminate subversive, powerful messages to the broader public, but they cannot be our only tactic nor conceptualized as a pinnacle of escalation.  Our movements must advocate for and facilitate direct action, not actively seek to thwart it.  That is not to say our only alternative is effusions of unfocussed anger, or the practicing of violent tactics to counteract hegemonic constructions of legitimacy.  It is not to say we should forsake mass demonstrations altogether.  It does mean we must diversify not only our tactics but our organizational forms.   We must capture and draw on the spontaneity, initiative and militancy demonstrated most aptly in the recent resistance to an immigration raid at East Street Market1 as much as we must recognise the broad-ranging appeal the People’s Assembly as an organization has, kindling support in even the most politically listless towns and villages.  We must balance a focus on concerted community organizing and direct action (rent strikes, work place organizing against casualization, the picketing of job centres and the blockading of institutions that employ workfare, squatting, self-organized domestic violence support services, physical resistance against deportation, evictions, immigration raids and fascists, consistent outreach to establish diverse, pluralist and powerful bases of solidarity) with a will to engage in broad national and international alliances and coalitions.   We must integrate the incendiary spirit of autonomous resistance with the organizational capacity to establish robust infrastructure which provides agency and support to the increasing population of the most vulnerable dispossessed by capital, constructing enduring institutions which retain broad direct democratic participation unalienated and unstultified by bureaucratized modes of organizing and dissent.

We must organize to nurture, synthesize and stoke the groundswell of discontentment which emerged on Saturday.  But above all we must innovate methods of organizing and struggle which address and intervene in material conditions, which connect with the most marginalized, and collectively seek to counteract the effects of austerity and surmount barriers which hinder our participation in activism.  Above all we must conceptualize modes of resistance which emphasise care as a primary landscape of struggle, which fashion bonds and connections of compassion as the reproductive foundation of any action and as essential in defending one another from the onslaught of the Tory regime.  Above all we must create communities and movements which are capable of collective empowerment, of asserting and claiming a future – and not just appealing for one.

1http://rabble.org.uk/immigration-raid-meets-fierce-resistance-on-east-street/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter