Student Conference: Delegates of Wrath

Issue section: 

A Barclays Bank report released in mid-April found that students graduating this year will owe a total of £2.46 billion, £13,501 on average, an increase of over 10 percent in the past year.

It predicted that students starting a three-year course this September could face a debt of almost £20,000 at graduation.

A week earlier the National Union of Students (NUS) annual conference was dominated by financial concerns of a different nature. Claims that the NUS is facing bankruptcy had led to a cut in the size of conference and the decision not to hold an anti-fees demonstration in London for the first time in five years. So this year's conference was the smallest, and most dominated by student union sabbaticals (full timers), in years.

A large majority approved the next stage of president Kat Fletcher's 'reforms', NUS-Extra cards. This is a plan to solve financial problems and make students take an interest in the NUS by charging them £10 for a discount card that can be used at various national chain stores. Apart from the obvious flaw - that heavily indebted students might not want to pay £10 when most high-street stores run their own student offers anyway - recent trade union history suggests the strategy won't work. The fastest growing unions, the civil servants' PCS and transport workers' RMT, have prioritised leading fights for members' pay and conditions over transforming themselves into 'service providers'.

The marginality of the NUS has more to do with its leadership in 1997 welcoming the introduction of tuition fees, and the previous president asking students not to demonstrate outside parliament when it voted on top-up fees.

However, the increasing number of students involved in the anti-war and global justice movements did make an impact at conference. The NUS passed policy to boycott Coca-Cola (despite opposition from the leadership), to support student unions (like Manchester) that expel BNP activists, against the government reducing the 24-week limit on abortions, and in support of Make Poverty History. A motion to campaign for means-tested (as opposed to universal) grants was defeated but so was a motion calling for an autumn demonstration against top-up fees (with lack of money and of student interest cited as reasons against).

A significant minority of delegates, especially those from further education colleges - where there are often no sabbaticals and the NUS is seen as something to do if you are interested in politics - voted consistently with the left on policy. Labour Students won no full time elected positions for the first conference in decades, while Suzie Wylie of the Socialist Worker Student Society was elected to the national executive.

Perhaps the most significant long-term trend in the NUS, a direct result of the anti-war movement, is the growth of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis). Traditionally the pro-Israel, and unrepresentative, Union of Jewish Students (UJS) has had a very strong presence in the NUS, with free holidays in Israel for sabbaticals commonplace. They perceived the emergence of a large faction of Muslim students, politicised by their opposition to the Iraq war and support for the Palestinian struggle, as a direct threat.

Citing the existence of leaflets at conference referring to the infamous anti-Semitic fraud, the Protocols of Zion, three UJS members of the NUS executive resigned (ten minutes before delegates were due to elect a new NEC). One, Luciana Berger, has since given a number of major newspaper interviews about what she sees as a rise in anti-Semitism among students. Unfortunately these interviews falsely conflate the legitimate anti-Zionism of the Palestinian society at London college Soas with anti-Semitism.

The offending leaflets at conference should be condemned, and the left must always stand in solidarity with victims of racism, whatever their political differences. Berger's attacks on the left, however, can only serve to weaken the unity necessary to fight racism.

Coming out of a conference where Labour Students and UJS members gave a standing ovation to a false accusation that the Fosis candidate was a 'fundamentalist' and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the NUS should extend the remit of its hastily commissioned report into anti-Semitism to cover Islamophobia and racial tension in general.