Fighting for change is hard, but it is our job.

Tuesday 15-09-2015 - 10:54

I've learnt a lot during my time in the student movement. I've seen the power of education and felt the responsibility we have to protect it. I have worked with people of principle. But mostly I've learnt about power; the collective power of the student movement and of NUS.

Students’ unions are the frontline for our movement. They genuinely understand what is really happening on campus and in the classroom. When I was elected National President I said we needed to be relevant to what really matters to students. I said that it is our responsibility, as their National Union, to represent them. It is because of our principles, rooted in equality and access to education, combined with the knowledge we gain from our members, that NUS is a respected voice at almost every table in the education sector. Our power comes from being in the room and influencing decisions. Making change happen.

We also owe it to those who have fought for us to have that voice to use it. In our 93 year history, we have had a tough fight for a seat at the table. We have resisted government attacks and court cases that have threatened our very existence. More often than not, it was direct action that made this possible. Students’ unions and activists have protested and occupied for our right to speak up for our members for years.

I have been on those protests and I have organised in those occupations. So I will never deny they are tools we need to use that can win. But I have always said that sometimes we need to get down off those soapboxes and get to work.  It is about getting the balance right. But having sat through our National Executive Council meeting last week, it feels that the balance is wrong.

If change was the number of demos we organised, or the number of hashtags we used then maybe it’d be different. But there seems to be an awful lot of shouting from the rooftops, and not a lot of change. Our job is to make life better for students. So why did I have to sit there as NEC voted for a motion that resolved we must not ‘tinker’ with the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), but that we must work to ‘stop it’?

Despite the fact we don’t even yet have the details of the policy itself.

Despite the fact we have been working flat out to use our seat at the table to have our voice heard.

The NEC wants us to go to students, to the sector and to the government with just one word to say. That the view of this national union and the view of the seven million people we represent is just; ‘No’. No will to engage. No way to win a better deal. Just no.

NEC and many of our national officers even, albeit narrowly, rejected an amendment that spelled out what we go to the table fighting for;

That any form of financial reward attached to the TEF completely undermines any possibility of enhancing teaching practice.

That linking “success” to fees risks driving behaviours with negative consequences for teachers and students.

Yet NEC just rejected the very notion that it was our job to even make sure this change happened, without any thought. They said we should always be stood on the outside, whilst students’ futures were decided on the inside.

The consequences of this cannot be underestimated. So I have to say this because we must defend our central purpose as an organisation and as a movement: We are not going to ‘stop’ the TEF, and to believe otherwise is naïve at best. In the autumn there will be a Green Paper from the government followed by a White Paper. Within the next year, we are likely to see a new Higher Education Bill detailing the biggest changes to Higher Education since 2010.

Let me make this clear. By not engaging in negotiations around the TEF, we have removed the possibility that NUS can win something better than what is currently on the table. That is the complete opposite of what we have been elected to do. They will say that I’m a ‘defeatist’ and that I should be more ‘hopeful’. This is reality. A reality that puts us up against a Conservative government with a majority, no matter how small. So make no mistake; this will happen with us, or without us.

And yet, the worst bit about all this? We had already won concessions.

We had already brought highly influential people in the sector with us to oppose linking fees with any teaching framework.  That is not ‘tinkering around the edges’ – that is defeating one of the single purposes of the government’s plans. But no, the NUS NEC voted to stop us using this influence, our power, to win.

Next year thousands of students will be able to continue to Masters study because of a loan system for postgraduate students that NUS developed, and the government conceded to.

Students were still able to access the National Scholarship Programme after students’ unions  delivered a £29m embarrassment for the Treasury turning pointless fee waivers into cash in pocket support.

Years of institutions denying the existence of sexual assault on campus will be brought to an end because of six years of hard work by the NUS Women’s Campaign winning a government-backed review of lad culture in universities. International students are still completing their degrees at London Met despite just a year ago being given 60 days to leave the country because NUS sued the UK Border Agency – and won.

Saying just ‘no’ means one thing and one thing only:

A national union that has to sit on the sidelines rather than secure a better deal for students. ‘Principled disengagement’ when we have the power to make change isn’t principled at all. That cannot, and will not, be allowed to be the case

Whilst students’ unions have been busy organising for this Friday’s #CutTheCosts national constituency lobby to save maintenance grants, members of the NEC decided to pass a policy that said the campaign had a “crap” slogan. Crap, not because of its content or its aims, but because our hashtag wasn’t ‘democratically decided’. Never mind the fact that their preferred slogan of ‘Living grants for all’ is against the democratically decided policy of National Conference.

So my message is simple.

Changing a slogan isn’t going to save maintenance grants. Demanding students walk out of lecture halls and classrooms will not bring an end to tuition fees. Standing outside in the cold as Jo Johnson cooks up his own plans for higher education will not get more people into education. Students rely on us, as NUS, to be their voice; but we cannot be their voice if we stand on the sidelines. Saying ‘no’ may win you a vote at NEC. It might even make you feel like the more ‘principled’ person. But it lets down our members and it will not win a better deal for students who need us more than ever.

They say that ‘we won’t get the world we want by asking nicely’. That much is true.  But I believe we win by using the strength of our movement, not solely our resolve. From the power of our students’ unions not just our principles. By the influence of our national union and our allies and not only our individual voice. There is nothing weak about talking tough to government. But there is everything wrong with just relying on idealistic political posturing.

We cannot deny or shirk the responsibility we have to make change happen.

So know this: The NEC can set a political direction for us, but it cannot dictate to students’ unions. We will not be walking away.  We will continue to support students’ unions in our fight to #CutTheCosts that students face on a daily basis. 

We will ensure that you are still supported to work on the TEF.

Those are our principles, that is our job and together we will defend, protect and win new rights for students.




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