NUS has a proud history of campaigning for global justice, but there is much more to be done. The Global Student Leadership Summit this month gives us a unique opportunity to build an international movement.
Dannie Grufferty, vice president society and citizenship, NUS
In case you have not yet been told in an election speech, a presentation at Students’ Unions 2012 or at a ‘Meet Your Neighbours’ reception, NUS was founded in the aftermath of the Great War as part of the struggle for peace. I jest, but it is indeed true!
Our Global Student Leadership Summit, to be held in London on 18–21 September, will bring together student leaders from across Europe, Asia, the Americas, the newly formed South Sudan, and the sadly yet-to-be-recognised state of Palestine.
In forging links with these nations, we can build something that may come to resemble an international movement of students. This is what our forebears such as Ivison Macadam envisaged, but I do not yet think it has been fully realised.
September is our moment to build something that speaks for students, learners and young people, and to make the case that our generation deserves a voice at the highest levels.
At the summit, we have days dedicated to education and development, education for sustainable development, and finally, peace and social justice. The final day falls on the day of global truce, where nations across the world are being asked to hold a global armistice. This is being led by Peace One Day and supported by students’ unions across the UK.
But peace alone is not enough. As a movement, we are united in our goal of justice, whether that is the learner without the financial means to travel to class, or the many students currently undergoing brutal repression in Syria.
Justice is about working with people to come up with shared solutions. We shouldn’t dictate to our members the campaigns they should run on their campuses, and in the same vein, I think we should be bolder in championing justice over charity.
Exploitative gap year schemes, in a similar way to unpaid internships, do little to promote justice. Yet our members continue to be ripped off by them. Students’ unions can lead the way in driving positive schemes that actually have benefits on the ground.
Constructive engagement is another way to drive the battle against injustice. The boycott of Coors beer in the 1950s, which is heralded in the biopic of Harvey Milk’s life (the one where Sean Penn plays one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office in the US), was a campaign we supported. But it was only much later when, due to contracts with Coors through our purchasing consortium, we forced them to publicly apologise, for the first time, for funding homophobic think tanks.
More recently, we’ve just acquired the ethical clothing company Epona, and are well on our way to becoming possibly the first organisation in the world to produce truly ethical cotton. From the price given to the grower to the living wage paid to the factory worker, it’s a completely groundbreaking initiative.
We’ve also been working with unions in Europe to look at the extent of university investments in Russian arms companies, many of whom are arming Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
Ethical investment campaigns can have a real reach and show true solidarity. Just look at what happened when students boycotted Barclays (or Boerclays!) bank in the 1980s. Mandela himself attests that this was one of the factors that led to the fall of the Apartheid regime.
On that note, another organisation celebrates a special anniversary this year. The African National Congress was founded in 1912 and throughout its history it has had support from UK students in the struggle for equality.
NUS should always be striving to support student political leaders around the world to win the fight for democracy. This is one reason why students’ unions across the UK have made Maxwell Dlamini their honorary president. He is the president of the national union of students in Swaziland, and is facing incarceration for demonstrating against his government.
We need champions!
Equality, like justice, is one of our founding principles. Our international work has arguably lost its way a little since the fall of Apartheid and the lack of a unifying campaign to take us forward as an international student movement. Yet, that work is picking up again in the society and citizenship zone of NUS, which is still only three years old.
We’re campaigning with Move Your Money to get students to switch to more ethical banking providers, and in turn, to create a better banking system. And our deal with the Co-operative Bank is aiding students’ unions to moving their accounts.
But we can go further. Walsall College has its own credit union which is supporting students with their finance in an ethical way, unlike the loan sharks of this age. Students’ unions are, in my view, a potential vehicle for credit unions, and this is something I want to help deliver in the coming year.
We’re working with Student Action for Refugees, the Refugee Support Network and the Helena Kennedy Foundation on getting those seeking protection in the UK the right to be considered home students when it comes to education. How many asylum seekers do you know who can afford not £9,000 fees for university, but international student rates? Our international reach can be a reality on our own doorsteps by extending the right to education to those who are often fleeing conflicts.
But this sort of work needs champions in students’ unions so that we can make the case that our unions are spaces where members can challenge the political consensus and drive real change in people’s lives.
If you are a champion, and have ideas and initiatives of your own, please get in touch on email@example.com. You can find out more about the society and citizenship zone at nusconnect.org.uk/campaigns/society.
And so in conclusion, happy 90th to our movement and here’s to the next 90!