The left in Australia has had a rocky relationship with the National Union of Students (NUS). A large coordinating body that ostensibly defends students’ interests on a national level is obviously a positive thing. But the fact that NUS has been dominated by ALP factions from its inception has put serious limitations on its ability to defend students effectively. This has often led progressives to dismiss it and to counterpose it to decentralised grassroots organising. But this is not a useful position.

Why a national union?

Student unions are crucial to effective student campaigns. They provide political authority, financial resources and a national structure of affiliates that can reach and influence thousands of students. Any serious attempt to cohere a national student campaign in defence of our rights requires a national student union of some description. This is one of the key reasons that NUS was set up in the first place.

After the decline of the Australian Union of Students (AUS) in the early 1980s, student activists were reluctant to set up a new national union. This changed when the government announced in 1986 that they were planning to reintroduce fees for domestic students, and NUS was set up in early 1987.

And although NUS was established with the explicit aim of being more focused on lobbying than AUS had been, it has played a part in most significant student campaigns, including the important role it played in calling and supporting the M14 national student strike this year.

The useful role of national unions is also demonstrated internationally. The inspiring student movements that radicals today look to, such as those in Quebec and Chile, were not simply spontaneous eruptions. They were initiated and organised by centralised national and regional student unions with formal leaderships.

The importance of such structures is also shown in the negative by the example of NUS in Britain, where a militant student movement arose in 2010 in response to fee hikes. The reaction of the NUS leadership was to distance itself and even denounce aspects of the actions. Students were rightly furious but nevertheless, in the space of a year the NUS leadership had gained control of the dwindling movement, and had led it in a more conservative direction.

So whether used to encourage or stifle student activism, national student unions play a significant role. Progressive students need to fight to influence the direction and leadership of these bodies. The emergence of a student campaign against funding cuts in Australia makes this task all the more critical.

What our NUS needs

In recent years, NUS has built up an inglorious track record of refusing to even respond to attacks waged against students. The Labor government has made regressive changes to the Youth Allowance, implemented harmful deregulation policies and further entrenched anti-union legislation (Voluntary Student Unionism – VSU). There has been no serious fight by NUS, and they have even declared some aspects of the government’s attacks progressive.

One of the first things that our NUS needs is a leadership that will take up each and every attack without being concerned about putting government or business leaders offside.

When NUS has decided to take a stand it has generally been able to mobilise large numbers of students onto the streets. Over the last two decades demonstrations against fee increases, funding cuts and VSU saw demonstrations of thousands in every capital city, alongside many campus occupations.

Actions like these put pressure on the government and university administrations to back down from their attacks. In Victoria in the 1990s, a vibrant student campaign reversed the Kennett government’s plans to introduce VSU. But unfortunately, even in the context of a successful campaign, the conservative tendencies of the leadership of NUS came to the fore.

Instead of fighting against the legislation in its entirety, they accepted a compromise that saw student union funding tied to the whims of the federal government. This actually helped the Howard government to reintroduce VSU on a national level ten years later.

The same story has been played out many times. Energetic student campaigns have been channelled into legalistic campaigns, lobbying offensives, Labor election campaigns and so on. For example, the anti-VSU 2.0 campaign in 2005 was initiated by the NUS education department and saw mass student demonstrations. But it was wound down by the NUS leadership, who argued that we just needed the re-election of a Labor government for the legislation to be reversed. Needless to say, this was delusional.

Apart from being the only way to actually push back attacks, protests and mass activism best serve the interests of NUS. It is mass activity, rather than private lobbying of government officials, that makes NUS visible and able to relate to the student body.

It is also the case that any serious student campaign will not just be coordinated from above but will involve local student unions as well as organic grassroots collectives and organising. This rank and file activity gives strength to NUS, but is also the mechanism by which students can apply left wing pressure to its leadership.

Where to from here?

To win NUS to a different political outlook requires socialists and other left wing activists within the student movement to lead by example – by initiating grassroots and protest-based student campaigns – and to contest for positions within NUS.

The campaign against the cuts has shown that NUS is still a crucial force in student politics. But any casual observation of NUS also shows that it is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that students will face under an Abbott government – or indeed another neoliberal Labor government. NUS needs to be transformed, and socialist activists need to be at the forefront of fighting for that.