Socialist Alternative and the National Union of Students

11 December 2022
Grace Hill

Socialist delegates are attending the National Union of Students National Conference this year to secure key activist positions in the union for the left and to fight for a much-needed activist strategy.

The federal Labor government was elected promising no serious action on major issues of concern to students, such as climate change, the appallingly low level of welfare payments and the degradation of public higher education. The major pre-election education policy announcements from Labor were mostly collaborations with university managements and corporationssuch as the higher education accordplus the creation of new student places to boost enrolments in areas required by business.

An active student movement would have launched a campaign in the lead-up to the election criticising the ALP’s pro-corporate approach to higher education, and would now be preparing to campaign in 2023 for real action on climate and serious measures to alleviate cost-of-living stresssuch as wiping HECS debts, increasing study payments and rent assistance, and taking serious action to deal with the national housing crisis.

Unfortunately, the National Union of Students instead ran a thinly veiled pro-ALP election campaign titled “It’s Time For Change”. This campaign put no pressure on the ALP and involved no effort to mobilise students to rebuild the student movement. Why has our union taken such a passive and conciliatory approach?

Aside from the socialist left, there are three main political factions in NUS. Student Unity, a Labor right faction, is dominant in the union, controlling the largest share of delegates at the National Conference. National Labor Students (NLS, the Labor left) and the Grassroots-Independents both purport to be left-wing factions in opposition to Student Unity. In recent years, these two factions have held key NUS activist positions, which gave them the opportunity to try to build and lead progressive campaigns. So why has the union been so passive, bureaucratic and right wing?

Part of the answer is that Grassroots and NLS have worked with Student Unity to lock socialists out of the union. Rather than use their positions to challenge the politics of Student Unity, they have mirrored its politics, running half-hearted pro-Labor campaigns and joining lobbying trips to Canberra to rub shoulders with politicians.

The NUS education office this year was held by the Sydney Grassroots, which used the position to collaborate with Labor on the “It’s time for change” election campaign, publishing a stream of pre-election commentary without a serious critique of the ALP. And they, like the Labor students, have been willing to engage with the pro-boss higher education accord (a plan for big business, government and university bosses to brainstorm the future of universities). To the extent that the union has taken action, organising a climate protest and a counter-demonstration against a corporate education summit, the Grassroots did little but tail the union strategy arguments put by Socialist Alternative nationally.

Unlike the other left factions, the socialist left has a national network of student activists, which can implement NUS initiatives on most of the major university campuses. When we have held NUS positions, we have been able to initiate campaigns that mobilise students. In 2014, with a Socialist Alternative education officer, we led a large campaign to defeat the Abbott Liberal government’s deregulation of university fees, saving students from paying American-style high fees for their degrees, and inspiring opposition to the government in wider society.

When Socialist Alternative members at various times held the NUS LGBTI office, we used the position to campaign for marriage equalityfrom the earliest days, when the Labor student factions were formally against gay marriage, to the final days of the campaign, when our office-bearers coordinated student involvement in mass rallies around the country. Our 2019 LGBTI officers jumped into the campaign to stop the deportation of LGBTI refugees back to countries in which they could be jailed for homosexualitya campaign that resulted in some of the refugees eventually being granted permanent residence.

In local student politics, our record is just as impressive. This year, our club at USyd led the campaign of student support for the staff strikes, holding firm on the argument for strong pickets despite heated debate in the Education Action Group.

During the 2020 bushfire crisis, our student union office-bearers called protests of more than 100,000 people across Australia, refusing to back down in the face of opposition from the federal Liberal government, state Labor governments and pro-Labor environmental charities that demanded that we call off the protests. Those protests were the only mass public display of opposition to then PM Scott Morrison’s appalling handling of the crisis.

The Student Unity-NLS-Grassroots lockout of socialist activists over the last two years has resulted in the union further degenerating and becoming ever more politically irrelevant. It put up no serious resistance to Scott Morrison’s attacks and is now cheering the new Labor administration, falsely, as “a government finally on our side”.

Campus politics is in a dire state. On most campuses, there has been a decline in the number of votes cast in local union and student council elections. The NLS have almost totally disintegrated in their former stronghold of Victoria, their members’ inactivity and conservatism making it increasingly difficult to differentiate them from the Labor right.

The Sydney Grassroots’ reliance on apolitical bloc votes has similarly left that faction diminished as those blocs have diminished or disconnected from student politics during the pandemic. This was evident in the recent student council election at USyd, where its share of the vote plummeted, and also on the staff picket lines, where the Grassroots was unable to mobilise a political base as they had in previous strikes.

Building a revolutionary socialist organisation, made up of dedicated activists, has helped Socialist Alternative avoid the disaster that has befallen Grassroots. These results show both an increasingly disengaged campus life and that an audience for left politics remains. Across the country, the percentage of the NUS delegate vote won by Socialist Alternative candidates has risen to more than 20 percent.

Student unionism’s decline is not due simply to the dominance of the Labor right. On campuses run by the ostensibly left factions, you’re more likely to find the student union running a charity shop or a mindfulness meditation class than a protest.

Turning this situation around will not be easy or quick, given the decline of protest culture and the fact that NUS has made itself politically irrelevant. Socialist Alternative is proposing a strategy focused on mobilising students where we can on issues they care about, such as the climate crisis, campus cuts and cost-of-living pressures.

Any initial protests we lead are not likely to be mass campaigns, given the prevailing political situation. But we believe that we nevertheless must focus on mobilising in order to rebuild some of the activist infrastructure and knowledge that have been lost in recent years, as well as to draw more left-wing students into student union activity.

To appeal to these students, we need student unions to take left-wing positions and criticise the Labor Party as it presides—federally and in most states—over a cost-of-living crisis, allows new coal mines to open and deports refugees, among other things. Student unions should also launch campaigns to defend LGBTI rights against the far right, to stand in solidarity with anti-racist struggles worldwide when they erupt and to support one another in resistance to campus-level cuts.

As living standards are driven down and student renters feel the squeeze, NUS should look for opportunities to call or support action on renters’ rights, wiping student debt or taxing the rich to improve living standards for working-class people. Thousands of students have in recent years participated in climate strikes, in rallies to defend abortion rights and in Black Lives Matter solidarity marches. The problem we face isn’t apathy on the issues, but the disintegration of the activist infrastructure that could sustain movement. NUS needs to lead by creating opportunities for students to mobilise and organise.

Student union campaigns have, in Australia’s recent history, undermined support for governments, sparked other social struggles and boosted the culture of protest and left-wing politics. In 2023, Socialist Alternative is determined to end the anti-socialist lockout, gain activist positions in NUS and use those positions to start rebuilding fighting student unionism in Australia.

Left-wing organisations must put forward clear criticisms of the government, give a lead to students and organise resistance. There is timeless wisdom in the old union adage, “If you don’t fight, you lose”. Our national union has refused to fight. It’s time for change. It’s time to rebuild. We invite others who share this goal to collaborate with Socialist Alternative in our efforts to turn the situation around.

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