With the NUS withdrawing support for the Free Education demonstration on November 19th on the grounds of health and safety, The Badger asks if they made the right decision?
The national Free Education movement that has been gaining more and more traction amongst students is a wonderful thing. It’s an organisation led by students in response to decades of government mistreatment, and if it achieves its aims, which I sincerely hope it does, it will revolutionise the lives of all future students in the UK. However, what some organisers may have forgotten, but the NUS has not, is that the students most affected by tuition fee hikes and cuts to allowances are disabled students.
These are the students who have pushed back from determinism to achieve more than society says they should. Disabled students are pushing their personal boundaries, and the boundaries of their institutions every day to make sure that all people can study and no one has to go through what they went through. Sadly, the free education march is not entirely inclusive of these students.
A march in central London is impossible for many people with many different abilities to attend and participate it. Whether this is because of physical or mental health problems, so many students who want to find a way to contribute to this movement simply can’t within its current actions. This is regardless of the logistics of getting to London, a notoriously inaccessible city, and regardless of the lack of funding available for transport for disabled students.
Marching for an hour just isn’t feasible for thousands of students, most of whom would benefit massively for free education. NUS has an obligation to look after all students right now, and its commitment to liberation through its liberation officers and campaigns highlights this. When the NUS disabled students officer, elected by disabled students, tells you that the group they represent are being excluded from what was an NUS endorsed march, then you have to listen.
If a group with a long history of organising marches is saying that your march is unsafe, and that supporting it will jeopardise their ability to operate as a union in the future and make changes to students lives, then again you have to take the concerns seriously. I know marches are a great way to unite students and take action, but if we want free education we cannot exclude anyone in the fight.
The most successful student campaigns I’ve seen recently have been the campaign run by NUS to stop cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) which succeeded in its aims with cuts to DSA now being entirely off the agenda, and the Fossil Free campaigns across many universities which have lead to institutions divesting from coal, gas and oil companies. Both of these campaigns were creative, and used modern campaigning tools like social media and e-petitions. More importantly though, they were entirely inclusive and run by students on the ground, by engaged organisations with political clout.
If we want free education we need to get smart, inclusive and organised. NUS not supporting the march and the outcry its caused has shown that we need political lobbying institutions on our side, but we can only get them on our side if we make equality one of the key criteria behind all action.
I think it is a terrible decision by Full time officers of NUS to attempt to withdraw their backing for the national demonstration for free education being held on the 19th of November in London. The NUS president released a statement concerning the safety of the demo and the accessibility for disabled students. Firstly this point is vague as it does not explain how or why it is not accessible and also doesn’t address the fact that no demonstration can be completely accessible or completely safe when you have to deal with violence and brutality committed by the police against protesters.
As someone with mental health issues it is true that protests can be frightening and unmanageable, but then so can going to lectures or using public transport. Protests can never be made completely accessible and safe because life isn’t something that can be made completely safe and accessible. So all we are left with is statement that is vague and scary but without substance.
The only specific point made in the statement is that there is no public liability insurance, this is something protest organisers would get so if someone tried to sue them, say for being hurt they would be financially covered. So lets be clear about a few things, firstly the NUS would never have been liable as they are not the organisers so it seems strange that they would be concerned about this, and secondly a pamphlet released 3 years ago by the NUS and liberty states: “Sometimes the police will tell the organisers of a demonstration that they need to get public liability insurance.”
“If you are organising a demonstration it may well be a good idea to get insurance incase someone taking part gets hurt and tries to sue you, but the police have no power to make obtaining public liability insurance a condition of holding a protest. You should be prepared to point this out if necessary.” Bit contradictory that, and shows how weak the argument for pulling backing really is.
Let’s also be clear that so many people have poured so much time and energy in to this demonstration over the past months and the NUS haven’t. They’re supposed to be our Union, and fight for our interests and our interests are free education. If pulling this backing is “with huge reluctance and regret”, why then did the NUS leadership not back a vote at NUS conference to hold a national demonstration organised by themselves?
To say this demonstration is unsafe is of course true in some senses as nothing which aims to challenge authority can ever be completely safe, but what is safe about letting successive governments who have unleashed endless attacks on our education system continue to do so? The decision to back the demo was originally made by democratic vote of the NUS NEC, but now full time officers appear to be pulling this backing without due democratic process.
The NUS is therefore revealing itself as favouring bureaucracy over democracy. The demo is still happening and the organisers will make it as safe and as accessible as possible, and will stand with anyone who is affected by police brutality and arrest in a way the NUS over the years has shown it won’t. That’s why I’m still marching on the 19th of November and you should too!