Over the last six months, university students and workers have experienced a massive onslaught of cuts to funding, jobs and courses. Many have responded by organising serious, and sometimes militant, campaign actions to defend higher education. And yet the National Union of Students has been almost entirely absent from the campaign.
Now, more than ever, we need national student representation which is willing to organise and lead wide scale resistance. This means electing a socialist to the position of national education officer.
The National Union of Students (NUS) is a national campaign body for students. As the only recognised national representative body for university students, it is best placed to call actions and coordinate campaigns across states. The union has a role dedicated specifically to this job: the NUS national education officer, whose main job is defending students’ rights and access to education.
This year, as students and staff have begun to fight back against one of history’s most significant attacks on universities, the NUS education officer has been entirely absent.
It's not because there was nothing to do. In the midst of the pandemic, students and staff have rallied and held actions in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Wollongong and Canberra. At Macquarie University, a student campaign defeated an attempt by university management to get rid of the gender studies course.
In Sydney, militant rallies have repeatedly defied a ban on protests, and have now succeeded in getting that ban overturned. Police violently repressed the rallies. Fines were meted out to students and staff. And yet hundreds of students kept on resisting the police and demonstrating.
We’re in the opening stages of the most important battle the campuses have seen since HECS fees were first introduced. To date, Socialist Alternative has led this campaign. Across the country, students from other political factions have at times been involved, and many students who aren’t already politically organised have played an important role in organising and developing the campaign. But it overwhelmingly fell to Socialist Alternative to establish the organising meetings, to set the dates of the protests by calling national days of action, to design and distribute the promotional materials, to get the word out and to lead the protests on the ground. We’ve even had to do most of this through separate Facebook pages with their own campaign brandings and followings, rather than the official outlets of the National Union of Students.
This isn’t how a national campaign should be run. All of this should have been led by the NUS education officer, using the branding and resources of the national union. Campaigns like this are the whole reason that that role exists.
It’s supposed to use its name and authority to get media coverage for campaigns, pay for wide scale promotion, give them increased legitimacy, organise for local campus student unions to participate, and provide them with assistance to do so.
And yet all year, Lincoln Aspinall, the national education officer of the National Union of Students and a member of the Grassroots Independents student faction, has played no real role. Over the course of the campaign, he has shared five posts on his personal Facebook page that relate to protests, and many, many more about lobbying right wing crossbench politicians. For this “activism”, he’s paid a full time stipend.
The Grassroots Independents are a student faction dominated by ambitious, bureaucratically minded students whose dearest wish is to be held in high regard by university management. In the midst of the campaign, they’ve repeatedly undermined student and staff opposition to cuts. At the University of Western Australia, they recently voted in favour of a restructure designed to assist the administration in future cuts to staff and courses. When members of Socialist Alternative at the Australian National University moved a motion that the student union fund a campaign against recent job cuts of 456 staff, the Grassroots Independents amended the motion to remove the funding. At the same campus, they voted in favour of a motion moved by a Liberal student that was meant to help university management target courses to cut. For years, the faction has campaigned for student unions across the country to withdraw all support from the National Union of Students. That makes them completely unsuitable for the role.
Positions in the National Union of Students are divided up on a factional basis. Apart from the Grassroots Independents, the other dominant players are student factions that are officially linked to the Labor Party; national roles in NUS are generally given to their leading organisers. They mostly use their positions in NUS to pad their resumes and build careers as politicians or in the trade union bureaucracy. They generally spend a lot of time in their roles networking in Canberra, sucking up to right wing politicians under the guise of "lobbying"; for much of this year they argued that lobbying the Centre Alliance may be the golden ticket to stopping the fee hikes. (Spoiler: it didn’t work.) If it’s an election year, they make sure to focus their “activism” on getting out the vote for the Labor Party.
If the National Union of Students continues down the path of placing members of conservative, bureaucratic factions in all its key positions, it risks becoming irrelevant at best and a roadblock at worst. With no serious, official leadership from NUS, the capacity of students to fight in defence of higher education has suffered this year–a year in which campaigning has already been made more difficult by the pandemic. But the work of Socialist Alternative has proven activism isn’t impossible: even in a pandemic, extremely important demonstrations have laid a basis for further campaigning against the sweeping cuts. We’ll need much, much more next year.
That’s why the mistakes of this year can’t be repeated. The record of the Grassroots Independents in this year of crisis shows that they aren't willing or able to wage the fight we need. The central activist positions in NUS must be occupied by people with a proven interest and capacity to mobilise at a national scale. Next year the national student union needs an socialist education officer.
Socialist Alternative’s perspective for the office going forwards into the crisis is simple: NUS must lead a serious fight. It should coordinate publicly advertised state based and nationwide meetings to plan a campaign in opposition to the fee hikes and campus cuts. It should call national days of action to defend students and staff, and provide campuses with funding for materials to promote them. It should constantly fight to get the media to cover attacks on higher education, with an aggressive media strategy including real-life stunts and constant discussions with journalists. It should assist campus activists in their own campaigns against course and job cuts, promote these campaigns and help link them together. It should have a political attitude that is hostile to the Liberals, Labor and campus management, one that won’t concede an inch to the idea that staff or course cuts are justified.
We’re entering Australia’s first recession in decades, and the university sector is one of the first parts of society to face sweeping attacks. Ambitious hacks using the National Union of Students as a playpen to practice Labor Party politics or to boost their resumes has to end. The union needs to step up to the plate and lead serious student resistance. The first step towards this is electing a principled, fighting, socialist education officer.