NUS: A history of protest

This article was originally posted by NUS Connect on 08/11/2016 in anticipation of NUS’ #UnitedforEducation National Demonstration on 19/11/2016. You can view the original article here.

by Matt Myers

Ahead of the United for Education national demo next Saturday, Oxford PhD student Matt Myers takes a look back at the proud history of student protest in the UK.

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Student protest has a long history in Britain. From defending students’ union autonomy, winning divestment from South African Apartheid, to fighting grant-cuts and rent-rises, NUS has played a central part in this history.

Previous student movements have won us many of the freedoms – including the right to have students’ unions – that students enjoy today. The NUS of the past wasn’t afraid to organize demonstrations, rent strikes, boycotts, divestment, and occupations. In the rapid turnover of student generations, these memories have become lost. The current NUS stands in the organization’s long tradition of protest.

The past and present NUS have many overlaps. A major NUS campaign in defence of grants in 1973 – which echoes today’s fight for NHS bursaries, the fight for free education, and rent strikes – called on the government to increase grants and for university authorities to reduce rent and food prices. In March 1973, an estimated 400,000 students participated in the NUS grants campaign. Many campuses held marches, pickets, and canteen boycotts. Like today, students and the NUS saw increasing rents as a direct attack on living standards. In 1973, the NUS officially adopted rent strikes as part of their campaign for increased grants. More than forty universities and colleges took part in the rent strikes that followed, including a four-month long occupation at Warwick. Students eventually won a 25 per cent increase in their grants.

Then, as now, the NUS wasn’t afraid to take action against rent-rises and education cuts.

Student movements of the past didn’t accept the false dichotomy between ‘student’ issues and ‘non-student’ issues. What was unjust in society and the world was unjust for students. The removal of the ‘no politics’ clause in the NUS constitution in 1969 opened the organization to solidarity action and the politics of liberation. The Anti-Apartheid Movement Campaign – which NUS helped create in 1972 – won university divestment from corporations engaged in trade with South Africa.

NUS regularly targeted South African sports teams, achieving success mobilizing against the (segregated) Springbok rugby team in 1974. As Goldsmith’s Rugby Club have recently shown by wearing a Palestinian flag on their team kit, the student movement has long seen sport as political. By the end of the 1970s, eighteen universities had withdrawn their financial investments in South Africa. Campaigns for boycott and divestment – against regimes that deny justice and freedom – have been a central part of NUS’ history.

NUS has been active in fighting surveillance and repression of civil liberties – from fighting repression of student protesters to taking on the Prevent Agenda. Students at Essex and Warwick in 1970 and 1973 discovered files showing that the university had been systematically spying on their student’s political activities. An NUS-backed campaign resulted in mass protests and major occupations. The fight against the Prevent Strategy is part of a long history in the student movement of defending civil liberties.

Much like today, the press regularly attacked the NUS and the student movement when they protested against injustice. Former NUS President Digby Jacks explained that in the 1960s that ‘the press sought to stigmatise students, alienate the general public from them and weaken the effectiveness of their actions’. The Conservative Party used the student movement as a political target in their 1970 election campaign. The attacks didn’t prevent students organising then, nor will they succeed in stopping them now.

Demands for liberation were framed as radical challenges to the system. In 1973 NUS campaigned for crèche facilities, nurseries, contraception and abortion on demand, and equal pay for women. At its 1972 conference NUS passed a motion on women’s equality stating: ‘Conference recognises that the oppression faced by women in British society cannot be seen in isolation from the capitalist system’. Liberation then, as now, meant connecting up the struggles.

The last great student revolt – this time over the threefold increase in tuition fees in 2010 – shook the Coalition government to its core. Although the fee rise passed, the movement spurred the anti-austerity movement and helped to decimate Liberal Democrat support at the 2015 General Election. The movement in 2010 politicised a generation – many of whom now find themselves at the heart of NUS.

In 1968, the writer and activist David Widgery called NUS ‘the student muffler’. The organization, he said, had ‘all the passion of an ashtray’[1]. The NUS of 2016 has come a long way since then, and is now one of the leading progressive voices in British politics. The history of NUS is the history of organized militancy for social justice. It is a history of demonstrations, occupations, rent strikes, boycotts, worker solidarity, and campaigns for civil liberties. The current NUS – and the protest on 19 November – stand in a tradition that has won us the rights we hold today. We owe it to past generations to defend the rights we have, to extend those we don’t, and to continue the fight for a free and liberated education.

#UnitedForEducation #Nov19

 


 

[1] Widgery, David. ‘NUS: The Student Muffler’, in Blackburn eds. Student Power. 1969 Penguin.

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The Radical History of Students’ Unions

This article was originally on 02/12/16 by the NCAFC here for NUS’ #LoveSUs day

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By Zoe Salanitro

Today is NUS’ #LoveSUs day and many of us are left asking: what’s to love? The most recent Tory proposals for Higher Education look bleak: rising fees, changes in loan repayment terms and the continuation of PREVENT, which is eroding the relationship between students and staff.  Yet a lot of SUs don’t appear to be doing anything about it. There has, undoubtedly, been some successes in a number of student unions, such as Warwick, that have managed to freeze fees for existing students but so far not enough to defeat the government or, indeed, put off university management for long. Despite the appearance of campaigns such as #LoveSUs, Student Unions haven’t always been bastions of glow sticks and ‘sabb selfies’ – there is an important radical history to SUs, one of ambition and daring, that we should look to for inspiration in the months ahead. We mustn’t forget everything we have we fought for – including our seat at the table.

The occupations in universities across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the universities of Birmingham and Liverpool led to SU representatives gaining seats on major university committees such as the senate. Students at the University of Warwick occupied the Senate House building which to led to the university constructing a dedicated SU building. Often protesting and having a seat at the table are pitted against one another when in fact their histories are intertwined. Sabbatical Officers and union representatives that have a seat at the table but lack the force of students to back them are weak and easily ignored by management. The threat of direct action and disruption to the university are the very reason we won these positions and remain key in winning any large demands. This isn’t limited to universities either, in 1968 Hornsey College of Art went into occupation for six weeks over the withdrawal of their Student Union and  through their occupation succeeded in challenging the composition of art education in the UK.

The University of Cambridge Students Union was formed on the back of a series of protests against the Greek fascist dictatorship in the 1970s. A wave of occupations in the early 2000s led to universities twinning with Palestinian institutions and, such as in the case of Sheffield, led to the development of scholarships for students from Gaza.

The proudest moments in the history of SUs have been instances of international solidarity even when, at the time, it’s put students against the government. The most famous and successful example, the boycott of Apartheid South Africa, led to direct action and campaigning at almost every major higher education institution in the country. The important role SUs have played in campaigning for international issues is crucial to remember in light of recent calls for student unions to only focus on ‘student issues’ as if somehow we can be separated from the rest of the world or ignore the international composition of the student population. It’s also important to remember that, usually, the people who say we should focus on ‘student issues’ have done little to no campaigning on them.

Moreover, there is a tired idea thrown around far too much which claims unions are divided into people interested in political causes and people who are involved in sports or societies. This idea holds no weight; in fact sporting students have shown what thoughtful, political involvement with the SU and university looks like. From the predecessors of BUCS, who joined the massive student protests in the 1970s against cuts to grants, defeating the then education secretary, Margaret Thatcher; to the sports teams across a number of unions who joined in boycotts of South African Apartheid by refusing to play South African teams among other things.Most recently, Goldsmiths Rugby team took action in solidarity with the Palestinian cause by displaying a Palestinian flag on their uniform.

Tokenistic campaigns like #LoveSUs are mostly a bunch of bland union hacks giving themselves a pat on a back, however whether it’s LSESU who rioted against the appointment of a director of the school who had been complicit in Rhodesia’s white minority rule and for occupying a space for nursery or the colleges and schools, often with little union infrastructure that took action against EMA cuts in 2010, this article can only begin to scratch the surface of SUs’ radical history. However, these, among many other struggles outside of student unions are part of the rich tradition of student activism beyond strategic plans and risk assessments.

It’s our turn to add to this radical tradition.

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