NUS' political fear of a history of violence

But leadership unease over mass demo lessened by hopes of campaigning dividend. John Morgan writes

November 15, 2012

Source: Getty

Vive la révolution: student protests in Canada that led to the downfall of a government have inspired some NUS members

The student protest to be held in London next week by the National Union of Students is one that its leadership never wanted.

Union leaders feared that violence could damage the NUS’ standing among voters in the next general election, when unseating deputy prime minister Nick Clegg from his Sheffield Hallam constituency is among the union’s aims.

But the student Left, inspired by the anti-fees protests in Quebec that led to the downfall of the provincial government, is relishing the prospect of the demo on 21 November.

The event was backed by delegates at the NUS conference in April despite the leadership’s opposition. The union’s national executive committee then voted down leaders’ proposals to subsume the demo in the Trades Union Congress’ anti-cuts protest, held last month.

At a meeting of the NUS’ executive committee in July, Liam Burns, the union’s president, did not hide his unhappiness, saying: “I still believe this to have been the wrong decision but it is fair to say that I haven’t seen any great kickback from membership.”

Asked if he was concerned by the possibility of violence on the demo, Mr Burns said: “Yes, it’s a worry. That’s why I’ve been so clear with members that this [violence] is not the way that you’ll engender public sympathy so they vote along our lines at the general election.”

However, Mr Burns believes the demo is “now right” and noted its potential to create “more politicised” students’ union officers.

He added that it was a “starter gun for what we’ll talk about in the general election”. Among its aims, the union wants to unseat “if not all, then key” Liberal Democrat MPs, including Mr Clegg, who backed the NUS pledge at the 2010 election to oppose higher fees and then broke it after forming the coalition.

He said he was glad not to hear of any vice-chancellors criticising the demo, adding that if he did he would have to ask what they were doing to help. “It simply isn’t enough for universities to go into the next general election calling for research funding to be protected. The public value of higher education needs to be put firmly back on the agenda and to do that we need to work together.”

Mr Burns argued that the NUS leadership and the majority of students’ unions are as one on the slogan for the march - “Educate, Employ, Empower” - and in agreement over its route, which will avoid Millbank, home to Conservative Party HQ, which was vandalised by some protesters who broke away from the NUS demonstration against higher fees in November 2010.

But the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts will be holding a feeder march on 21 November under an alternative slogan: “Tax the rich to fund education”.

Michael Chessum, NCAFC co-founder and a member of the NUS’ executive committee, said that this reflected the union’s policy for “free education” funded through general taxation - a change from its previous graduate tax policy, voted through at this year’s conference.

He also criticised the route of the main march, which ends next to The Oval cricket ground in South London. The 2010 protests led to the “greatest upsurge in [UK] student activism…ever” and “that wouldn’t have happened without Millbank”, said Mr Chessum, elected last week as president of the University of London Union.

He said the lesson of Classe, the Québécois student group, was that “persistent street mobilisation…eventually won”.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

celebrate, cheer, tef results

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

Reflection of man in cracked mirror

To defend the values of reason from political attack we need to be more discriminating about the claims made in its name, says John Hendry

But the highest value UK spin-off companies mainly come from research-intensive universities, latest figures show