Right now students are under attack. Teaching budgets have been decimated in higher and further education. The loss of EMA and the rise of tuition fees is pricing working class people out of education. The higher education funding system will polarise universities in the coming years, allowing the richest to become richer still, while underfunded institutions are at risk of closing down.
I don’t need to remind anyone of the seriousness of this. These issues will not be resolved by NUS officers having meetings with government ministers in fancy hotels. The only way we can fight back for our education is the same way that pretty much everything good has been achieved: mass mobilisation. And this requires democracy. We can’t fight for our futures without allowing all those voices to be heard, ideas to be genuinely debated, and decisions taken democratically.
NUS is not currently in a position to do this. This has been strongly emphasised to me in the past few days.
So I’ve just finished my third round at NUS Zone Conference. Thanks to the NUS leadership people were put on the doors of the sessions to prevent me from entering. I’ve written about how I was banned from attending the conference already. But since then a two things have happened.
The main argument against me being allowed into the conference was that I missed the deadline (albeit simply because I was on holiday) and that there was a huge waiting list of people who should be admitted before me.
I disagree with this: being on the Zone Committee means that it was my responsibility to be there.
But I have since discovered that it’s not even true.
After I explained the situation in my election speech this morning a delegate came up to tell me that they had only registered yesterday. That despite deciding to come well after I had said I wanted to, was admitted where I was refused.
To be clear, I think this is good overall. These things should be flexible and students should be encouraged attend these events. But it makes a mockery of the line that the process is strict and had to be followed.
Any doubt I previously had that my exclusion was political and to prevent me from criticising the leadership, has now totally vanished.
A culture where criticism is not allowed
I also received a message from a student officer in a Scottish college. They had been trying to get some support from NUS, but hadn’t got a response. They agreed with me about how exclusive and undemocratic NUS has become but they were afraid to say so, for fear of being cut off from the support they need.
I don’t blame them at all.
In the last few days chunks of NUS leadership have accused me of bullying and intimidating behaviour. I have been publicly ridiculed by them online. And these same people who have been so vocal on twitter have totally ignored me in real life. (Not all to be fair, some have respectfully said they disagree with me and left it at that.)
The reason I bring this up is not for sympathy or anything like that, but because it raises an important political point.
NUS’s democracy is set up to not allow much room for officer to be held to account. And as I have learned in the past few days it is all too easy for officers to use their bureaucratic power to stamp down on any opposition.
If the actions of the NUS officers create a culture where students feel that criticism of the leadership results in shunning and public ridicule then not many people are going to be willing to do it. This poses serious problems for NUS democracy.
Democracy allows the best ideas to float to the surface, become a consensus, and then improve the lives of everyone. Clamping down on criticism, on the basis that you think you’re right prevents this from happening. And then everyone loses out.