NUS conference report

By Simon Furse originally published here

OK I’m mid exams so this is going to be brief but I thought I’d report back on what happened at NUS conference. I’m going to be focusing on things that are controversial or represent a large deviation from previous NUS policy. The thing that really struck me at conference was the consensus about the severity of the government’s attacks on students and the need for a strong response. (find the full motions document here)

Further Education Policy

In 2010 FE students drove the vibrancy of the movement but this was actively opposed by the NUS leadership who encouraged them not to walkout or come on demonstrations. This year the following policy was passed (203 with amendments a and b)

Conference Resolves:

1. To call for the immediate re-instatement of EMA.

2. To call a national day of walk-outs over EMA in the first term of 2012-13 and do everything possible to help FE students to mobilise.

3. To publish the stories of those who have lost EMA and produce a popular booklet for FE students.

4. To launch a bold new FE campaign demanding:

– The abolition of all fees;

– No hidden course costs;

– A living grant/maintenance allowance for every full-time and appropriate financial support for part-time students;

– Defend and improve the pay and conditions of workers in FE;

– Stop the cuts to courses, departments and jobs: tax business and the rich to fund education.

Postgrad Policy

The NUS has long had a negligent attitude towards postgrads with little or inadequate policy. This year something approaching comprehensive policy on Postgrads was passed. I can’t post the motion in full because what was discussed is different to the motions document however the motion essentially said strongly that Postgrad study is a social good and should be available to all based on ability not who can pay. On PGRs the following was passed

1) To launch a campaign, alongside UCU, to defend PGR students and their working and learning conditions, 2) To launch a campaign encouraging all eligible postgraduates to join UCU

National Demo

NUS will be organising a national demonstration in the first term of 2012-13 against cuts, fees and privatisation.

HE Policy

Amendment 305a, that passed, is such a sea change in NUS policy that it deserves quoting in full Conference Believes

  1. The white paper is about making the fees regime work
  2. That we are opposed to all private providers in education
  3. That we should highlight the danger that Coalition will introduce their attacks bit by bit without one legislative big bang
  4. The focus on lobbying for amendments without providing any vision of how even these limited goals might be achieved is inadequate
  5. We have an opportunity for a mass campaign against the Government which can defeat the HE bill
  6. It should be the role of the elected leadership to find creative ways to unite and encourage broad opposition, not to demobilise it
  7. That the 2010 national demonstration sparked the biggest student protests in Britain for two decades
  8. That last November’s NCAFC organised national demo was a success, but could have been much bigger with NUS support
  9. That to defend public higher education NUS should stand with the campus trade unions, academics, administration staff and university sector

Conference Resolves

  1. To campaign against the government’s whole HE agenda, including all private providers, and for a public university system.
  2. To fully support UCU’s initiatives against the White Paper.
  3. To organise, as a matter of urgency, a publicity campaign on the implications of the White Paper.
  4. To call for Willetts’ resignation
  5. To demand
  •  No to the White Paper – for public universities
  •  Students and workers unite – defend courses, departments and jobs
  •  End student poverty
  •  Tax the rich to fund education
  •  To organise a year-long national campaign using mass-mobilising tactics

Defend the right to protest

First of all I want to say congratulations to our VP education, (as far as I know) the only person to be personally commended as a part of NUS policy (402b): “9. To congratulate Edd Bauer, Birmingham Guild of Students VP Education, for his reinstatement following suspension for being arrested at an NCAFC protest” The rest of the policy is a strong affirmation of the right to take direct action and be supported by your union.

Conference Resolves

  1. That NUS should campaign against any attempts to curb the rights to protest in the UK.
  2. To join the UCU in calling for a public inquiry into the arrests and violence used against demonstrators and to include in this an inquiry into the overcharging of protesters
  3. To launch a campaign highlighting the human stories behind police brutality and the importance of protest rights.
  4. To fully support imprisoned students including by supporting the DTRTP “twin with a prisoner” scheme and work with Student Unions, UCU and Universities to ensure those students are facilitated and supported to continue their studies during their sentence and following their release.
  5. To work with Student Unions to make sure students know their rights in advance of protests including aiding the distribution of DTRTP/NUS bust cards.
  6. To call for universities to be places of political asylum
  7. To campaign against the use of the courts to prevent protests on campus, as in Birmingham and Sheffield
  8. To campaign against the anti-trade union laws, which are a serious restriction on the right to organise and protest, and new attempts to restrict workers’ rights

Also have a look at motion 510 in the Welfare Zone some highlights are:

Conference Believes:

  1. That the right to peacefully protest is a human right.
  2. That the term ‘protest’ encompasses a myriad of activities and any attempt to give a definition to ‘protest’ is impossible.
  3. That any action by a University or Students’ Union to create a list of protocol to determine what protesting is allowed is therefore pointless. 

Elections

4 of the 6 candidates for NUS full time officer positions were incumbents and were re-elected. Union Development and Higher Education were the most contested positions. The new VP Union Development, Vicky Baars, is a free education activist and, as LGBT officer in NUS for the last two years, has consistently called for NUS to be more active to have stronger stances and to take stronger action. The new VP HE, Rachael Wenstone, was elected on a speech and manifesto strongly emphasizing the need for NUS to stand up for the public university and to try and give students more control over the governance of their universities, she also was calling for a national demo.

Conclusion

NUS conference as a representative of the national student movement, has I think come to terms with, and rejected, its absolute failure to inspire serious action in the autumn of 2010. Conference is now advocating strong stances, strong action and strong defence of students who take part in this and are victimised by the police or universities. The question that remains is if the leadership of NUS will live up to their strong mandates and this will require students, including ones from this university, to hold them to account.

Next year everyone at the Guild need to draw a line under the fractured weakness that has characterised the organisation over the last year. We all need to get behind the national Demo and have hundreds of Birmingham students out on the streets of London. We all need to think hard about our principles, how do we think universities should be run, and the tactics that can bring this vision about.  Conference this year has had a serious debate about what these should be and now needs to unify around what was decided.  I hope sincerely that similar debate and similar unity in action takes place on our campus.

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