Posted Under: Education,Employment,Public Sector,Trade Unions
When starting this blog, we promised that we wouldn’t write about student unions, but the last week has brought about an important event that has wider political implications. The UCU (University and College Union) are currently balloting their members for industrial action on pay. This last happened three years ago, at which point a three-year pay deal for lecturers was agreed, but in many ways it was hard-won. Some of you will remember that members of the union refused to mark exam scripts and coursework, meaning that there was a delay in many students getting their grades and graduating. As a student I stood on a picket of the New Museums site in Cambridge, alongside lecturers. We were together fighting for a cause – for better working conditions for university staff, and in turn better education for students. The two were (and still are) inseparable.
So, this week, when NUS president Wes Streeting decided to say that “Students need industrial action by university staff like a hole in the head.” I was pretty appalled. I wasn’t shocked, but I was appalled. Streeting is a careerist Blairite, and of course his line is going to fall in line with the government if it means he ends up an MP, but he really has forgotten what his role as NUS president is. The argument that he uses is that the NUS is a protective pressure group, and exists to defend its members, and of course there are some short-term negative consequences of these sorts of actions, but what he is forgetting is that the NUS is there to defend the position of students within society. The fact is that students will always be better off if lecturers have better conditions. Streeting is all too willing to sell out future generations of students to save a little inconvenience for the current members of the NUS. As long as the shit doesn’t hit the fan on his watch it’s not his problem. But actually I think there’s something a little more sinister going on here.
Wes Streeting and his despicable ilk are only able to make comments like this in the context of a so-called “depoliticised” student movement. It is only when the NUS has been thoroughly relieved of any ideology, when the union is at the service of the students rather than the students being at the service of the union, that remarks like this may pass. It is only when being a student is not a political category. It is only when the student becomes a customer or a client, taking from the university rather than his or her being a student is an element of his or her identity, that statements like this make any sense. If the NUS is just an umbrella organisation that represents a bunch of people who happen to be studying at any particular time then it can’t do anything (and actually, this is why it does do things so infrequently.) On the other hand if the NUS was really about defending the material conditions of students, and I refer to students on the most abstract level here, then it would be fighting alongside the UCU for high quality teaching in our universities.
In some ways it may be a difficult situation: choosing to defend the concept of the student in the face of a bit of inconvenience for some rather real people, but that is a choice that must be made. I am reminded of a decision on a much smaller scale when I was a student. At my college (where all students lived for three years) rents were discussed every year, and every year there would be a bargaining process with the students’ association. One year, the college said “We don’t want to do this anymore. From the next year of intake we want fixed rates of rent for each year group as they enter for three years, based on our projections of inflation. There will be no bargaining in this process, because you can’t make decisions for people who aren’t yet members of the student association.” And as a sweetener they offered to freeze the rents of all current undergrads for the rest of their degrees. And what happened? Well, of course, the students’ association sold out the future students of the college. They fucked their future constituents, all for saving a little bit of cash. But in this case the NUS don’t even get any cash, they just get to be a bit more matey with the government.
Wes Streeting, if you do ever read this I wish to remind you that you are a fucking scab. That’s the only way to describe someone who sells out their peers in such a monumental fashion. You are a fucking scourge on the good name of unionism. I can just about understand why some third years might be worried about this action but it is up to people at the top of NUS, who have both distance and understanding, to show the students what the political situation is, and what the principled position is (have you ever heard of principles?) You are not there to act out, in your scabbing ways, the destruction of everything the student movement in this country has ever fought for.