Toni Pearce, the NUS president, says today in a statement that with “huge reluctance and regret” she is “outlining why NUS is not in a position to support this demonstration”.
In September, the union’s National Executive Committee passed a motion to formally endorse the demo, organised by a coalition of student groups including the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), the Student Assembly Against Austerity and the Young Greens.
The NCAFC criticised the NUS’ decision to withdraw support as “ridiculous”.
The 19 November event, being held under the banner “Free Education: No Fees, No Cuts, No Debt”, would have been the first national rally backed by the NUS since it held a march through central London in November 2012 – an event opposed by the organisation’s leadership, including then president Liam Burns.
The issue of free education is problematic within the NUS. Last year’s national conference in Liverpool voted narrowly to support it as a goal, but there remains significant support for a graduate tax within the union.
In her statement, Ms Pearce says the decision was made “with the NUS Vice Presidents and Liberation officers who hold significant concerns regarding an unacceptable level of risk that this demonstration currently poses to our members”.
Ms Pearce continues that the “plans that are in place do not give us confidence that the demonstration will be accessible to all students – in particular disabled students”; that from a risk assessment “it is clear that there are inadequate measures in place to mitigate against significant risks”; that “there is no public liability insurance in place”; and that it is “clear that the concerns of the NUS liberation officers about accessibility, safe space and the ability for liberation groups to be involved have not been met”.
She adds: “NUS has a policy to support free education, and we will continue to lobby and campaign for this, but no action that we take should be put above the ability for all our members to be safe. We have gone to considerable lengths to help change that position, by working with the organisers, but that time has now run out.”
Beth Redmond, organiser for the NCAFC, said the NUS’ stance was “a ridiculous position to take, and directly contradicts the democratic mandate taken by conference and the NEC”.
She added: “We are doing our absolute best on a tiny shoestring budget, and we have been working hard to ensure the demonstration is organised properly.
“Dozens of campuses and student unions are mobilising from all over the country, and this demonstration should mark the beginning of a new wave of student activism – not just against fees, but for a transformative vision for free, democratic and public education, and that is also the democratically mandated policy of NUS. It is clear that the priorities of some in the NUS leadership are elsewhere.”