Students of Bangor University have been shocked to find the leadership of the NUS campaigning for a “no” vote in their upcoming referendum on whether to support the abolition of tuition fees.
Bangor Socialist Students had successfully obtained more than 250 signatures in a petition calling for a referendum on whether to join the Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF) in its attack on top-up fees.
“Spending time and money on campaigning against free education in our own Unions is simply unacceptable”
However, in the run-up to the referendum the Presidents of both the NUS and NUS Wales have come out against Bangor Students’ Union adopting the CDF’s demands.
They made their position clear in a debate held earlier this month which saw them arguing against Ian Dalton, of the Socialist Students, who represented the “yes” vote.
Wes Streeting, NUS President, characterised the position of the Socialist Students as “an unrealistic wish list of demands”, adding, “the arguments put forward by the Campaign to Defeat Fees are ridiculous”.
Streeting pointed out that during this time of economic recession scrapping fees would be unpractical and that no government would introduce such a measure.
He drew attention to the more “pragmatic approach” of the NUS leadership. Its September 2008 report, ‘Broke and Broken’, launched an extensive critique of the current form of higher education funding. It stopped short, however, of calling for free university education and instead argued against any further marketisation of the system.
In his foreword to the report, Streeting writes that he personally feels university education should be free, but that “the debate has moved on and we won’t win by dredging up the old arguments”.
Yet Dalton was not swayed by the President’s ‘pragmatism’. He held firm in his belief that “we need a mass campaign to put pressure on the government to scrap fees involving a strategy of protests and national demonstrations”.
Some present at the debate contrasted this rhetoric to what they interpret to be Streeting’s pessimistic view of the scope of student activism. Dalton evoked the recent student protests in Germany as a successful example of students’ ability to have a real impact on government policy. These lead to the federal state of Hessen abandoning tuition fees altogether from this academic semester onwards.
Criticism has also been levelled at the NUS leadership for the union money that has been spent marshalling the “no” campaign. Student Unions, including the University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU), contribute to NUS coffers through their affiliation fees, and many say it’s not acceptable to use our money to work against free education at a time when students are despairing at their rising levels of debt.
Lee Vernon, USSU’s Finance officer and a Socialist Student member, said that “the NUS spending our time and money on campaigning against free education in our own Unions is simply unacceptable”.
While stressing that there is no problem with the NUS arguing its position, he expressed the widespread
feeling that “our affiliation fees should be used to fight for better higher education funding, not political
USSU have attempted to get an explanation and record of expenses from both Ben Gray, President of NUS Wales, and Wes Streeting. As of yet they have received no reply.
The President of Bangor SU, John Jackson, was unavailable for comment before the result was known, saying he didn’t want his personal views to sway what he felt should be a free and fair vote for all.