Students, stop fighting each other: it’s the government that is the enemy

The student movement is more divided than ever, but it must stand together to defend its values, says Beth Button

November 9, 2015
Argument, fighting

The other week, Times Higher Education published an article – a commentary on what has become an ongoing fallout within the National Union of Students’ national executive committee. This article didn’t make me angry, it made me incredibly sad.

This is my fourth year in the student movement, and my third as an NUS full-time officer. I’ve been around long enough to have seen changes in government, three NUS presidents, and Scouting For Girls headline pretty much every students’ union freshers’ ball.

In that time, I’ve seen the movement divided politically, I’ve seen factional fallouts, and countless arguments on demos. Political disagreements are nothing new, and when we have our differences in political opinion we should be celebrating them, not dismissing them. It’s what makes our movement so strong.

But recently we’ve seen an ongoing back and forth between different “sides”, where differences in tactics are being drawn as the dividing lines, at a time when commonalities in values and principled beliefs should unite us more than divide us.

Talk of “us” and “them” on social media, a fixation on “winning” at NEC, “student unions vs student activists”: these arbitrary and divisive divides we create among ourselves are uninspiring and, frankly, a disservice to our members, especially at a time when there are enough battles to be fighting out there without turning on one another.

But while political differences are nothing new, something this year has felt different; although I’ve seen the movement divided in the past, the movement has never felt so hostile or as toxic as it has in recent months.

This isn’t about politics – this is about how we treat each other.

It’s easy to dismiss this under the guise of “political differences”, but I think that we as a movement use that as an excuse to conveniently forget that these are real people, with real feelings, and whether it’s on a local or a national level, the student movement isn’t a nice environment for officers to be working in currently.

Social media has become a platform filled with vitriol, and some of the personal attacks I’ve witnessed over social media in the recent months have made me ashamed to be part of this movement. These are attacks that go beyond political criticism and become personal.

This isn’t pointing fingers just within the movement; some of the most disgusting and vile interactions I’ve seen on social media have come from outside the movement. But we’re so busy going at each other on Twitter at 3am that we’re blind to the bigger enemies out there. We should be calling this shit out, and looking out for each other.

These past few weeks have also had me wondering how we as a movement can do this to ourselves. It’s exhausting to work in such a hostile environment. It’s exhausting to constantly have your guard up or be “plotting the next move”. It’s exhausting to try to emotionally protect yourself every day from abuse on social media. Isn’t everyone tired?

We love talking about self-care in the student movement, and yet I fear that it’s our behaviours to each other that mean that we have to start preaching about self-care in the first place. There’s a sad irony to the levels of tension and anger we throw at the movement while telling them to practise self-care.

Challenging each other is a fundamental necessity of the student movement, but we have to step back and examine the way in which we’re going about that now.

Whether that’s the way we treat each other on social media, or even just the way in which we fixate on discrediting each other’s choices of tactics. Because when we argue over “tactics”, I fear we also forget that the means of action we each choose to enact are often as important to us as reaching the goal at the end, as they’re rooted in our principles, our values, and are personally political by their nature.

Because the real enemy here isn’t the faction that isn’t yours, or even factional politics in general – it’s the government.

Whether we believe in direct action or constructive engagement, we can all agree that the values that the student movement was built on are the same values regardless of which means of action they’re enacted through.

But it’s these values that are under attack, and which we must now ensure we are powerful enough to protect.

Only through being a movement led and owned by strong and active students’ unions, will we be powerful enough to maintain our vital values of collectivism, democracy, equality and opportunity.

And in our focus on our disagreements, I fear that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture of why we’re really here: to safeguard the future of the next generation.

To ensure that those who haven’t reached education yet are not shut out of a system that’s being dismantled bit by bit by savage funding cuts, and that when they reach that system, there’s a student movement for them to call home.

It’s no secret that our current government isn’t the biggest fan of unions and collective action. And whether it’s the trade union bill’s attempts to restrict unionised workforces, or whispers of another attempt at the failed move to an “opt-in” membership of students’ unions from the early 1990s, the values of collective action are being threatened, and our ability to act collectively is at risk.

Without the basic values of collective action, our movement is dismantled, but our legitimacy and credibility – and therefore our existence – has also never been more at risk

Whether it’s politicians attempting to discredit the legitimacy of students’ unions, questions from the media and the wider sector about our credibility, or even our own members vocalising frustration at their feuding national union, when NUS’ reputation is questioned, people don’t differentiate between the different parts of the organisation.

And so when the student movement inevitably finds itself being challenged, as we have been and as we will continue to be, we won’t be able to win, and none of our tactics will work, if people don’t recognise and respect students’ unions and the NUS as the legitimate voice of students.

We owe it to the next generation of students to build a movement they can be part of – but even to leave a movement for them to enter into in the first place.

Beth Button is president of NUS Wales. This post originally appeared on NUS Connect.

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