Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right…..

By Liam Burns

Sometimes being the President of NUS can feel just like I am living that Stealers Wheel song, constantly being told I am out of touch and conservative by those who want me to be the fire-starter for the revolution, and then being told I am out of touch with ‘ordinary students’ from those on the right who see NUS as a reactionary vehicle of the hard left.  So, here I am stuck in the middle with you!

In truth I take both those views on the chin. I get it. NUS is a complex organisation, and everyone has an opinion.  So, I am going to use this journal as a way to talk about what I think NUS is as a campaigning organisation, and as I leave the student movement the challenges that I think I am leaving behind.

Recently I stumbled across an article from our Vice President Society and Citizenship, Dannie Grufferty that I believe captures well some of the current debates and discussions around student activism, and understanding the challenges we face here in the UK – so I am not going to rehearse the arguments Dannie has made so well, but attempt to move the discussion on.

From the Inside Out….

I’ve always believed that the best way to change students’ lives is through public policy change, but that you have to engage students and ensure that they can be part of the process.  I am proud of the way that we managed to do that in Scotland. But I’ll be honest, I underestimated how hard that would be on a UK-wide level before I made the move down south.  In Scotland we have a more dynamic policy-making process in our Parliament – on the whole MSP’s and Ministers across the spectrum genuinely want to engage and listen to citizens and to campaigning organisations, and work together to find policy solutions.  Change can come about quickly, and in general the politics are progressive.

Down south I found a completely different world.  I’d found working with a coalition government in Scotland positive, in Westminster it meant warring factions and inertia.  The processes are slow and clunky – the ability to get traction on issues is difficult when there is no agreement across Government about solutions.

Let’s take the issue of international student visas. As NUS, we go in and talk to David Willetts, the Minister in BIS responsible for Higher Education, and he is a rational man.  He agrees with us that having international students counted in the net migration figures is problematic.  The sector as a whole agrees, and keeping them in there is quite simply a political fudge.  We know that it’s not just David Willetts that’s on the same page as us – Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, also agrees. We even hear of rumour that D-Cam himself thinks it should be changed – yet nothing happens. Why? Well because all power seems to lie in the Home Office (co-incidentally the only Government department without a Lib Dem in sight) and Theresa May has made it clear that not only will international students not be removed from the net migration figures, but that it’s acceptable to treat them appallingly whilst they are here.  You only have to look at the way that UKBA handled the London Met situation to know that those students were considered nothing but ‘collateral damage’.

This is a really important issue, and it is important NUS campaigns on it.  However, it is also a clear example of where NUS needs to think really hard about how it goes about campaigning.  I don’t think that in this example a daily picket of the Home Office is going to change the mind of Theresa May – not when opinion polling has immigration as one of the top issues for swing voters, and the debate around immigration is more toxic than ever, now that we have a wider debate around Europe and the next wave of EU expansion around the corner.

Of course, we know that it’s a complex issue, but when the right-wing press control the public narrative,  and that narrative is so negative,  we are faced with a steep up-hill climb.  In my mind, the clear way forward is to work to build a coalition – to work with UUK, universities, the British Council, Students’ Unions, UKCISA, and anyone else who wants to come on board to sell the positive impact that international students have here in the UK . We need to win hearts and minds, because we have a rational argument and a sensible solution – but it is I am afraid falling on deaf ears, and to simply shout harder, louder and run back to the campaigning tactics of another time will get us nowhere, and fast.

It’s also just one of the many issues that we need to campaign on.  In the run up to the 2010 general election and the Browne Review, NUS knew that it had a giant policy window and an opportunity to campaign on this one big issue . The campaigning landscape looks so much different today.  There is a myriad of issues that we need to work on, and the notion of running one big priority campaign each year is a nonsense. We need to be running multiple campaigns, some focused on influencing decision makers and others more suited to building mass participation. To do these things requires NUS to evolve its campaigning approach.  This can only happen if we can take our internal decision makers with us.

One of the big debates in the campaigning world is whether you are an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ organisation.  It’s clear to me that the day that NUS stops going into the seat of power to talk to those in charge about what is wrong and suggesting solutions to change is the day we really start to let students down.  That being said, I don’t see this as an option just between in and out. Like most things in NUS, the reality is more complex.

Something Inside So Strong….

I’ve always believed that NUS is the anchor point of the student movement, a movement that is diverse, complex, and contradictory – and that it was NUS’ place at the centre of a movement that made it so powerful, beautiful and amazing.  I have always stood in NUS elections as an Independent, and that is because I genuinely believe in political pluralism in our movement, and whether leading at Heriot-Watt Students’ Union, NUS Scotland or NUSUK, I have sought to work across political groups and across the political spectrum.  It might sound twee but I genuinely believe that ‘together we are stronger’.

However, being together doesn’t mean being the same.  I think that we need a range of organising tactics across our movement if we are to build a broad activist base.  I think that NUS has a role to play in that – in running events and initiatives to equip our member students’ unions to train and support activists for local campaigning, as well as then engaging those people in our national campaign work.

Again this is where we need to get smarter – not just in the student movement but across mass campaigning organisations.  I do not believe, nor do I see any evidence that suggests, that either the only or the most effective way of engaging or mobilising activists is through large scale demonstrations in capital cities.  When in 2010 NUS organised it’s demonstration around fees and cuts it was weeks ahead of a vote in parliament, there was a clear moment in time that we were trying to influence and a clear objective for people to rally around. That is why the demonstration was successful – because it had a point.  Activity in search of a purpose can easily result in a waste of effort, resource and time.   We need to move away from our fixation on the tactic and start to consider more carefully our goals.

In recent years there has been much debate and discussion about what interests students and young people.  We know that increasingly students are interested in issue-based politics rather than party based politics, and we also know that people get involved in campaigning because they are motivated by the topic  – be that human rights, green issues or educational issues.   Our challenge is to meet students where they are, not to self-righteously believe that we are right on all the issues and all the tactics.

Whilst I will have moved on from NUS by the time we have realised the full potential of NUS Digital, the new online platform for the student movement, I am genuinely excited by its ability to transform the way that NUS campaigns with both students’ unions and students.  Working through online communities to promote campaigns and activities is going to strengthen our movement and extend our reach.  We know that students today live online and offline simultaneously. Harnessing digital opportunities will allow us to be quite literally in the hands of students through smart phones and allow students to be in the hands of decision makers through their devices.  During the 2010 general election campaign and the resulting fees campaign we worked with the online organisation 38 degrees.  Whilst the experience was on the whole positive and allowed us to extend our reach, it also meant having to adapt and water down our message. To be a truly strong movement we need to be able to do it ourselves. Our own digital revolution looks set to re-assert students as a campaigning force to reckoned with, able to continue to punch above our weight.

Our future activist army will be nationally gathered online but able to meet locally in person too.  It might be around the location of people rather than their institution and we should embrace loose collectives rather than seeking to enforce out-dated structures.  NUS and students’ unions should provide training, support and more importantly evidence to facilitate activists to run effective, evidence-led, policy-changing campaigns.  If those campaigns involve visual campaign stunts in the town centre or outside the library doors then fine, but those actions in themselves are not campaigns, and without broader strategies they are unlikely to win.   The rituals and traditions that have been passed down from previous generations of activists were right but in a different time; we need to develop new traditions fit for the 21st century.

Power to the People….

Inside NUS one of the sacred cows we have been slaying is about being able to change our approach to reach out and appeal to different types of students.  Much of our research with ‘ordinary students’ showed that they were alienated from our campaigning by the language of demonstrations, activism and fighting – it repelled rather than attracted them to us and to students’ unions.  They were not however apathetic, or apolitical, or disinterested – they just need to be engaged in a different way.  As a result around fifteen months ago NUS launched “I am the change” – an initiative aimed at getting students to recognise their agency and to realise their ability to change the issues that they cared about.  It was brightly coloured, simplistic and was written and developed using research, information and evidence about what appealed to those very students who had said they had previously been put off.  At the heart of it is a competition – to come up with something that you want to change, and if you win you get support and resources to realise your campaign.  Many already engaged in the student movement mocked it, and derided it for being apolitical and unappealing; however they weren’t the target audience, and so to some extent I didn’t care what they thought. As ever with things like this the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and the outcomes were great.

The first ever “I am the change” winner was student called Courtney Giles.  A first year student at the University of Warwick who had grown up involved in her local youth club Epsom PHAB.  The PHAB Club was a space where disabled and non-disabled children and young people could play, learn and grow up together and was at the heart of Courtney’s community in Epsom.  However, local authority cuts put Epsom PHAB under threat, and Courtney wanted to save her youth service.  She came to NUS HQ with a group of other students from universities and colleges across the UK, but all of whom grew up in Epsom, for training and to develop their campaigns plans.  Her winners’ story is a real inspiration – Courtney and her campaign team saved Epson PHAB!  Courtney has told us that she would never have walked into her students’ union and got involved in campaigning. She said that she saw NUS as a discount card and little else. But through uploading her change onto our site and through taking part in our training she now proudly calls herself an activist, and I for one hope to see Courtney as a student officer at Warwick, and hope she walks through the doors to her union seeking ways to continue to be the change. For those of you still scoffing such an approach – I wonder how Courtney’s anti-cuts campaign (and that is what it is) compares in terms of impact to your own approaches?

NUS needs to develop this programme to enable students’ unions to use it more effectively and to provide the training and support we provided to Courtney in our HQ to students locally. We are developing those resources as we speak.

In the End…

I will be leaving NUS and the student movement this summer.  During the time that I have been involved locally in Edinburgh, then through NUS Scotland and now as the President of NUS UK I have seen NUS and its members start to take campaigning more seriously.  When I was the Vice-President Education at Heriot-Watt University we never talked about how to campaign more effectively, and evidence-led policy wasn’t a phrase I was familiar with.  I know that the student movement that I leave behind is better equipped to campaign and to fight for students than the one that I came into, even if we are more aware of the language that we use, and we try to broaden our appeal.   One of the dilemmas of the left is that on the one hand we want to increase participation in our causes and our movements, yet on the other we expect people to understand and engage with our language and come to us, rather than go to them.  I think NUS is becoming more sophisticated in its approach, and as we try to appeal to the jokers on our right, the clowns to our left will feel uncomfortable.  Nonetheless, I see it as critical that NUS continues to play a juggling act in the middle, because on the whole it’s students who we are stuck in the middle with.

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