Socialist activists have won leading positions in the National Union of Students for the first time in three years. At its national conference (NatCon), held this month, the union committed to protest against the federal Labor government over issues such as the destruction of the environment, rising cost of living and attacks on the rights of oppressed people. Socialist Alternative members were elected to the positions of education officer and LGBTI+ officer.
The National Union of Students is the peak political student body in Australia. Every year, NUS holds a conference attended by elected delegates from across the country. At NatCon, hundreds of students debate what the union should do the following year, what positions it should take on political issues, and elect its office bearers, who carry out the union’s work between conferences.
This year NatCon was dominated by Student Unity (the Labor right faction), National Labor Students (NLS, the Labor left) and Socialist Alternative. The Grassroots Independents, formerly a large faction, splintered, with some joining NLS and the rest abstaining from most debates.
Student Unity is the largest faction. They bill themselves as the defenders of everything ALP—and it shows. This year they moved motions defending nuclear power, chanted “dig it up, ship it out” when someone argued against fossil fuels and defended the right-wing SDA union.
Despite being called Labor’s “left”, NLS have failed to respond to the recent historic attacks on higher education. In 2020, the Morrison Liberal government passed the Job-Ready Graduates package, which pushed a majority of the cost of university education onto students for the first time since fees were reintroduced. Vice-chancellors used the excuse of the pandemic to sack hundreds of staff, impose wage freezes and cut courses.
An NLS member was NUS president during this time, but made no attempt to organise opposition to the attacks. This year, NLS refused to organise protests against the right-wing conduct of both major parties, including the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, tax cuts for the rich and the deportation of refugees. Instead, their members campaigned for Anthony Albanese, who, in his first 24 hours of government, turned back a boat of Tamil refugees fleeing genocide.
At NatCon, rather than move motions calling for student protests, NLS argued that we should look to the Labor government to improve students’ conditions and removed criticism of the Labor Party from nearly every motion put forward.
Their main argument was that the best thing for students would be for NUS to join the upcoming Australian Universities Accord, in which Labor plans to bring together vice-chancellors and governments to reshape higher education. While the accord gives the appearance of listening to students, student representatives involved in the discussions would be utterly powerless. Worse, their very attendance will further the plans of university managements to maximise profits at the expense of staff and students.
Students have power only when we mobilise collectively, disrupting business as usual. In 2014, NUS led such a campaign, in which NLS participated, defeating the Abbott Liberal government’s austerity budget. This year, however, they moved a motion in a bureaucratic attempt to prevent the incoming socialist education officer from protesting the accord.
Socialist Alternative came to the conference arguing that if NUS was to be relevant, it had to fight against attacks on students (such as skyrocketing HECS debt, low welfare payments and cuts to education funding) and broader issues such as climate change, stopping the far right, supporting Palestine and defending women’s and LGBTI+ rights.
In particular, we argued that the Labor government and the university vice-chancellors are not our allies—they work hand-in-hand to put university profits before all else. A mass student movement is not going to re-emerge overnight, especially after years of inactivity from NUS. But organising protests, even if small, is the only way to rebuild activist networks of students and start to push back the attacks on our rights
Following a debate on the climate crisis, NUS voted to organise a National Day of Action on 17 March (3 March in Sydney). Socialist and Labor students met with others from their campuses to plan how to promote it among students. This is an important first step in trying to rebuild a fighting student movement. Climate change is a key issue of concern for university students, so if NUS can lead a campaign on that issue, it will put students in a better position to fight against education cuts, high rents and so on.
NUS also committed to supporting the struggle to free Palestine and opposing the far right. There was sharp debate on the religious discrimination bill that is being reviewed by the Albanese government. In line with their overall approach to the conference, NLS attempted to take out all criticism of the Labor Party and did not commit to opposing the bill.
Socialists argued that we can’t afford to wait until the bill is tabled. In the United States, pro-choice advocates didn’t mobilise until after Roe vs. Wade had already been overturned, rather than campaigning while it was under attack. After heated debate, NUS voted to oppose the bill. This is a positive step, but there’s little indication that the other factions want to campaign on the issue. So it will fall to Socialist Alternative to do the leg work.
With Labor in government, there’s a danger that the left becomes complacent. We can’t afford to sit around and hope that Labor will be better. The government is holding down welfare, expanding fossil fuel industries and deporting refugees. We need to fight them.
Xavier Dupé is the National Union of Students education officer.
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