NUS, you can’t protest in a bubble

Rob Harries

Topics Free Speech

This week, the UK National Union of Students (NUS) released a statement of pure, bureaucratic, handwringing brilliance. It stated that the NUS executive had decided to withdraw its support for the upcoming student-fees demonstration in London on 19 November, which it had previously endorsed and sponsored.

The reason for this? Well, apparently the NUS was unable to secure ‘public-liability insurance’ for the protest, meaning that there would be unacceptable ‘risk’ factors if the NUS did take part. In short, they ended up sounding exactly like the grey-suited bean counters who said in 2010 that tripling tuition fees was an absolute economic necessity.

The NUS also cited concerns about ‘accessibility, safe space and the ability of liberation groups to be involved’. Therefore, they could not, in good bureaucratic faith, rubber-stamp this demonstration as a safe and risk-audit-approved social and ‘inclusive’ event.

The NUS is not a real union, and now it seems it’s not even keeping up the pretence. The central campaign of the NUS is against tuition fees, as this is something that effects all students. But now it seems the NUS has become more interested in catering to an imaginary group of easily offended, demo-shy students than looking out for its members’ collective interests.

The talk of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘inclusion’ with regard to a demonstration underlines the lack of political conviction within the executive. Clearly, the NUS favours press releases and mission statements over actually taking action.

Demonstrations are meant to be a provocative challenge to those that govern us. They are the flexing of political muscles by an interest group, and therefore they frequently invite and expect a response from the state. Demonstrations are, by definition, unsafe spaces for the ‘vulnerable’ or, indeed, anyone. Anyone involved in the student-fees protests of 2010 will know this. After routing the police and sacking the Conservative Party offices at Millbank in November, the sequel protest a month later was subject to heavy policing and a horse charge.

While the student protests of 2010 ultimately failed, they did represent a level of grassroots student organisation, away from students’ union structures, that had been unseen for decades. Students and various independent student organisations realised they didn’t need the NUS’s leadership or endorsement to take action. It was a moment which marked the ultimate irrelevancy of the NUS in leading or organising its members.

Students who wish to take part in the upcoming demonstration will not be deterred by the NUS’s risk assessments. However, the failure of the NUS to support a demonstration on the one subject that nearly all of its members are united on ticks another box on the assessment form titled: ‘NUS: unfit for purpose?’

Rob Harries is a writer and researcher based in London.

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Topics Free Speech


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