How do we defend education?

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By Anastazja Oppenheim, NUS National Executive Council (pc)

This article was published in Clarion issue 2 just before the 19 November NUS national demonstration.

How do we defend ourselves from the current wave of attacks on post-16 education? No topic generates more emotion and argument in the National Union of Students right now than the National Student Survey.

In April, NUS National Conference voted to boycott the NSS as a way of fighting the Tories’ Higher Education “reforms”. To activists, this seems like common sense. We don’t want to participate in a survey that will be used to raise fees and slash courses. A national boycott can disrupt the implementation of the “Teaching Excellence Framework”, giving us some badly needed leverage.

However, to many student union sabbatical officers, things look different. Some fear a boycott would damage their “good relationship” with the university, while others claimed to be worried about losing a tool for gathering student feedback.

We’ve seen long, passionate articles written by officers in defence of a survey which most students spend no more than a couple of minutes filling out, either nagged by never-ending phone calls, or bribed with the chance of winning a free iPad. A survey that is already being used to penalise academics, and has been proven to have a disproportionate negative impact on women and BAME workers; and that will now be used to harm future students.

Officers at over 30 SUs signed a call for a national ballot on whether NUS should publish a “risk assessment” of the boycott. If it passes, it will force NUS to delay working on the campaign and spend thousands of pounds on a useless exercise. The idea to risk assess not filling out a form is ridiculous, especially in the light of full-fledged attacks on public Higher Education. The national ballot is clearly a bureaucratic attempt to undermine a democratically agreed policy.

To maximise the boycott’s impact and minimise damage to individual institutions, we need to make sure it is as widespread as possible. We need to pass motions at our SUs and put pressure on officers, alongside agitating for a boycott on our campuses. It takes one person to do a lecture shout out, maybe two to drop a banner or set up a stall – and reach hundreds of students.

Beyond and linked to the boycott, we need a much wider campaign, starting from this demonstration – press articles and open letters, lobbying, public meetings, local demonstrations, direct action and occupations… An active NSS boycott will make such action more effective and vice versa.

We need demands which go beyond the defensive, articulating a socialist vision for the future of education. Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion of a life-long National Education Service service is good – but from how schools are run to abolishing international fees, from the level and means-testing of grants to restoring FE funding and establishing democratic control of colleges and universities, it needs a lot more content. Let’s get started.

• Anastazja is a member of Momentum and of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

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