Protest or participate? If only life were so simple - we must do both

Tuesday 20-10-2015 - 09:22

Since I took office several national issues have dominated the agenda: the Chancellor’s budget, the government’s Prevent strategy and the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, to name just a few.

Across all these areas, and more besides, the reaction nationally through NUS and through students’ unions has been confused. It’s understandable - the attacks have been flying thick and fast, and the political landscape has been shifting quicker than we have experienced in a long time. Time-pressured and hungry to convert frustration into something that feels productive, we have lurched towards actions and policy positions that are, at best, ineffective and perhaps even unhelpful.

As we approach Zone Conferences, one of the first major opportunities I have to be held to account, I’m not comfortable that we’re making the most of our capacity to engage and influence. I know we can do so much more.

I find our national union committed to national demonstrations which are anti-everything and pro-nothing, despite making this mistake in 2012.  It doesn’t make sense that we have chosen to reject funding that would have enabled us to support students’ unions to deal with the consequences of the Prevent. I’m embarrassed that policy stops us talking to anybody working on the Teaching Excellence Framework, despite not knowing any details of it, despite being the kind of organisation that loves excellence in teaching as much as we love a framework.

That’s not what I expect from my national union. To default to protest, demonstrations and boycotts is to limit ourselves, to shy away from the full range of options available to us, to stick to a comfort zone. It flies in the face of our experience and our responsibility to seven million students in times of real anxiety and hardship.

I’ve spoken to many SU officers over the summer about this, on all sides of the debates. For many it comes down to this binary: some think outright rejection is always the most powerful way to make a point – demos, protests and boycotts – and some think it is never effective, that we should be masters of the game and see if we can get a better result by lobbying and influencing effectively in a boardroom. This comically oversimplified tension is a toxic way to think about our movement. We can do both and we can do everything in between, because we are lucky enough to have the capacity and the energy and the infrastructure to do so, built over nearly 100 years.

I want to bring to the surface this thinking that seems to be pervasive in our movement – that we are forced to make a choice - in the hope we can talk openly and sensibly about how we can build a less divisive, more effective movement.

The better approach is to recognise that we can, and should, use all our tactics in combination. Because I want to campaign and influence and take action alongside everyone who believes in the aims of our student movement. I want us to make a difference, not be bound by crappy assertions of what works, and let this irrelevant tension dictate who we can and can’t work with.

Sometimes we sit in on tables with boards, sometimes we sit at board tables. Sometimes we have to win the argument with evidence and persuasion, rather than raw displays of power. Sometimes we might be a part of the conversation until a red line is crossed, and then we have to walk away from that conversation or engaging with an organisation where our fundamental values are incompatible. But we can, and should, use all avenues available to us. From the earliest possible opportunity we have a responsibility to engage with the issue, and propose constructive alternatives. We must take the opportunities, when they are given to us, to be in the room, to shape the conversations, to hold people to account.

This is important because the student movement has a responsibility to take ourselves, the influence we wield and our ability to change millions of lives seriously. We are invited into spaces because people sincerely value our opinion. We are a legitimate voice - clear in our intentions and relatively free of vested interests (or interesting vests).  What’s more, we have many, many friends and allies in remarkable places – politics, media, education, wherever – who are relying on us to fight the corner, not sit out on principle.

This approach is called constructive engagement: using what influence we have, where we can, to make a difference. Not ducking the difficult conversations with our stakeholders, partners and allies. And it works. Specifically, for the UK student movement, it works.

Like that time our movement won the right to statutory sick pay for a quarter of a million apprentices by establishing new channels for apprentice representation.

Or that time we won postgraduate loans through a coordinated lobbying and campaigning effort.

Or that time we led a global campaign to get an apology from Coors for funding a homophobic think tank. Just one example from all the other times we’ve used the collective enterprise of the student movement as a force for good in the world, and continue to do so.

Constructive engagement doesn’t restrict our ability to walk away when we hold the balance of power, or when we absolutely have to, but it means we are making the most of our opportunity to shape what’s going on in the world, and it means not shutting ourselves out at the earliest stage because we think it will make our point in the most theatrical way.

I would consider our recent decision to take legal action against the government for not considering the equality implications of their policy as a form of constructive engagement. We had to think: what do we really care about at this stage? What options are available now to shape the process so those concerns are addressed?

How do we move forward from here? Firstly, we need to do away with the idea that one set of tactics is more righteous than another. Everyone in our movement has principles, and we must work together to put them to work in whatever way we can. To claim to know otherwise is divisive.

Secondly, we must understand the weight of the responsibility NUS has, to students and students’ unions, to use what we have built over 93 years for the good of students and society. And to really know and understand the consequences of walking away, or limiting ourselves. Our National President, Megan Dunn, wrote powerfully about this a few weeks ago.

Thirdly, we need to be the group that always gets invited to the party. Because we’re dynamic and smart, welcoming and inclusive, we listen and learn, we challenge thinking and always have something valuable to chip in. Can we not be the ones in the kitchen, leading the conversation, rather than sulking upstairs because the music isn’t ‘our thing’? We all need to work to understand what that means for us: is the students’ union seen as the broken record better left outside, or what we all know it can be – the fresh perspective our education system desperately needs?

Finally, I want you to come to NUS National Conference, to be the advocate for your students’ union. When I was at Hull I encouraged every elected officer on our team to put themselves forward as delegates. It was important to me that, as the informed representatives of students, we needed to be heard on debates like this, how NUS engages constructively in the world around us and how we support the tactics of students’ unions. As VPUD now I’m encouraging you to do the same. Do not leave it to others to decide that NUS should continue to shy from the difficult conversations, and fade into irrelevance in your name.




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