Marching to a different beat

The recent protests have united students – but also highlighted the political divisions within their union.

With the news reports and opinion pages alike full of marches, placards, and sit-ins – as well as a few smashed windows and the occasional fire extinguisher falling from the sky – student politics has returned to the fore in a way not seen for a generation.

Just weeks before a parliamentary vote on the Coalition Government's plans to cut university funding and raise tuition fees, one might expect the student movement to be more united than ever behind its traditional flagship, the National Union of Students (NUS). This confederation of 600 unions, formed in 1922 and today claiming to represent 7 million people, looked as though it might be leading the way when it brought 50,000 of them onto the streets of London to protest on 10 November.

Yet the sheer size of its constituency, as well as the diversity of social backgrounds and political allegiances within it, mean the NUS is just as much an uneasy alliance of competing factions as is the Conservative and Liberal Democrat partnership it is protesting against. Pragmatists and idealists, lobbyists and radical activists, party political groups and the non-aligned, as well as the left and right, all are in the mix.

"The student body has a range of views," said NUS President Aaron Porter. "It's my responsibility to advocate the mainstream opinion in a responsible way. I still maintain that there is more that unites students than there is that divides us."

Now, however, the divisions are becoming increasingly evident and fractious. Struggling to maintain its campaigning momentum while also condemning the violence that broke out during that march, has the NUS found its voice supplanted by those of other "Young Turks"?

On Newsnight in the hours following the 10 November march, Mr Porter appeared at odds with one of his more radical rivals, the president of the University of London Union, Clare Solomon. And at a meeting of the Education Activists Network at King's College London a few days later, many of the 250 attendees (Mr Porter himself was a no-show) spoke of their disappointment with the NUS leadership. As plans were laid for "occupations, barricades and walkouts" across the country, Mark Bergfeld, the event's organiser and a member of the NUS's national executive council, made it clear that further action would take place without the union's help. "The fact that Porter condemned the protests means it's up to us to say who the real vandals are in this society," he said.

Indeed, the nationwide protests that followed on 24 November were not instigated by the NUS. Nor is the planned "national student strike". Instead, a variety of smaller groups such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is calling the shots. That campaign's co-founder, Michael Chessum, told The Independent that, like many activists, he finds the union's approach to campaigning "deeply frustrating". He said: "Our existence is an indictment of the NUS. It's a question of how much [the NUS] is willing to put its mobilisation where its mouth is; it's slick, it's well-branded, it's full of very good politicians – but it's very rhetorical." Chief among Mr Chessum's complaints is that the union was weakened during years of "appeasement" under successive Labour governments, having, he argues, "shied away from any kind of meaningful ideological debate".

He says, "We really have to be physically out there, stopping the Government from doing what it's doing – and I don't think the NUS is properly engaged with that at a high level. Letter writing is fine, but they're refusing to reorganise and remobilise that grassroots movement." Of the NUS's Right to Recall campaign, for voters to be able to recall any MP breaking an election pledge, he says, "They're trying to appeal for bits of legislation that don't exist."

Last week, Mr Porter maintained that the NUS was supporting direct action and doing everything it could, "organising surgery protests and encouraging students to get in contact with their local MPs". But then last Sunday at a student occupation at University College London (UCL) – where Mr Chessum is education and campaigns officer – Mr Porter performed a U-turn, admitting that the NUS had experienced serious problems in recent weeks.

"For too long the NUS has perhaps been too cautious and too spineless about being committed to supporting student protest," he said. "Perhaps I spent too long over the last few days doing the same. I just want to apologise for my dithering in the last few days." Beyond any immediate risks to the fight against the Browne proposals caused by such "dithering," there is a longer-term concern for the NUS: the prospect of member unions choosing to disaffiliate. The number of unions to have done so is small, but in just a few days time Durham will join Southampton, Aston and Imperial College London by dropping out of the NUS. With budgets tightening, a widening sense of dissatisfaction at the NUS's handling of the protests could make the £40,000 membership fees look like money worth saving.

Alex Kendall, president of the union at Imperial College, said his union has no regrets about disaffiliating in 2008. As the only student union to back the fees increase, Imperial is clearly running against the grain. But left-wingers who disagree vehemently with Imperial's policy on fees concur with Mr Kendall's assessment that if the NUS wants to fight fees, it made a strategic error in 2008, when it dropped the demand for free university education. "At the moment they're stuck in a middle ground by saying they want a graduate tax," Mr Kendall said. "Before the Browne review they weren't campaigning for free education, and you get the impression that they're saying, 'Why can't things just stay the same?' That's not a principled argument for anything."

But Mr Porter is adamant that to win the argument against increased fees, students need to recognise what is realistically achievable: "The responsible thing for us to do is to engage in the actual debate that is being had, rather than be consigned to the irrelevance that – I think – adopting a position of free education... would have brought."

Whether this approach is what student protesters want to hear is another matter. Even the keenest of campaigners have experienced problems getting their young audience to listen. When Clare Solomon tried to lead a march in London with a megaphone last week, she was powerless to prevent many of the protesters from breaking away and deciding for themselves where to go.

For all the bluster of the student community's radical left-wing activists, however, they remain a minority among today's more consumer-minded undergraduates. The worry for a relatively restrained and mainstream NUS is that while that group's numbers are small, their voices are often the loudest.

Should anger at the fee increases and funding cuts continue, the delegates elected by the student unions across the nation to represent them at the NUS national conference in March – where policies are voted on and leaders elected – could be some of the most radical in years.

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