Wednesday, 14 April 2010

NUS Conference: inside the bubble

NUS Conference has always been in
Blackpool. This year, for the first time, it has come to Tyneside. Gateshead's Sage, a music venue on the Quayside, is a great choice and this area seems popular with delegates of every political stripe. It's popular with this particular observer too - I live 5 minutes walk away.

Mind you, NUS conference is its own world, a bubble floating free from reality. It's important not to take it too seriously - or you will get thoroughly depressed, at least if you're a leftwinger. The dominant bloc combines VERY right-wing social democracy with managerialism. Outgoing president Wes Streeting is so nauseatingly careeist I expected him to end his speech with "And in 5 years time I'll be a Labour MP - aren't I doing well?"

I was a delegate twice: 1999 and 2001. I recall very long days and lots of shouting. Most things this year are the same as a decade ago, except the left's numbers are diminished and democracy is weakened (these two things are linked). And, as a consequence of the left's smaller presence, there's less shouting - but more angry murmuring.

I've been enormously impressed by contributions from the left, whether the NEC members standing for top jobs or those on Conference floor. It's like they are speaking at an entirely conference to the strange Blair clones in the leadership, one of whom actually said "we can't have free education", ignoring the fact that even after 18 years of Thatcher and Major we still had free education. Really, it's not a radical concept.

Their view of NUS is that it must be a discreet, polite lobbying group. Delegates were warned that occupying students like those at Sussex should think carefully about their actions. Why? Because by taking militant action over one issue - savage cuts in Sussex's case - they jeapordise any chance of being listened to on other issues. I suspect they believe this stuff themselves. 

The campaigning fringe meetings are the only way of surviving with sanity intact. The free education and anti-cuts meeting was excellent, with Terry Wrigley reminding us that cuts are linked to bigger questions about the nature and purpose of education, as universities become increasingly business-oriented. He's the author of the inspiring book 'Another School is Possible' - perhaps it's time to start talking about alternatives in higher education too, going beyond just defending the status quo.

I'm going to fringe meetings today for Stop the War and Unite Against Fascism. Both are vital campaigns in the student movement. As Hugh Lanning, chair of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, noted in a fringe meeting yesterday, NUS is to the right of the TUC on the issue of Palestine. And just think what could be done with the billions currently wasted on Trident and Afghanistan - no need for either fees or cuts.

Anti-fascism could come to the fore within NUS, as elements in the leadership clearly want to roll back 'no platform' policy.  They have even called a meeting at the same time as UAF, where the subtext appears to be a revisionist attitude to 'no platform'. 

Delegates will leave Tyneside tomorrow and find that the serious work defending education and resisting cuts happens outside NUS Conference. It will require the kind of militant tactics derided inside the Sage, and the vital coalition building (especially with staff unions) spurned by NUS leaders.           

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