How to build the student movement

Wednesday, September 7, 1994

How should the student left respond to the escalation of attacks on university student rights and education? Sydney University Resistance activist MARINA CARMAN argues that the focus must be mobilising and organising an increasing number of students in defence of their own rights.

The student left needs to draw some lessons from the campaign against voluntary student unionism (VSU) in Victoria. Federal legislation to guarantee funds for student unions there may provide some resources for student organisations, but it also demobilises the campaign.

A guarantee of federal funding meets student demands to maintain student-provided services, but does nothing to guarantee the democratic right of students to organise in a political association. This is an erosion on the rights students had before the introduction of VSU legislation.

The student left in Victoria failed to extend the anti-VSU campaign beyond popular anti-Kennett sentiment. While correctly focusing the campaign on a demand against VSU legislation, no clear political explanation of the intent behind VSU was popularised. VSU was portrayed more as a Kennett ploy than as opening the door for a new round of attacks on education and students. Many students had a political instinct to defend student unions, but many more would have joined a campaign that linked attacks on education and their rights to the defence of student organisations.

Failure to do this limited not only the numbers of students involved but also the ability of the campaign to link up with other struggles against state and federal attacks. The narrowness of the campaign allowed the federal Labor government to intervene and demobilise the campaign more effectively.

Beyond reformism

The student left needs to go beyond a reformist perspective, which underestimates the centrality of mass mobilisation and the need to lead campaigns in the direction of challenging the overall economic and political program of big business and government.

The significance of VSU is as a potential tool in implementing economic restructuring. While this approach is as yet favoured only by the Liberals, Labor has its own program of anti-democratic measures, not least among them the corporatisation of unionism.

A reformist perspective turns the relationship between student unions and student mobilisation on its head. Working through student representative councils (SRCs) and the National Union of Students (NUS) becomes the principle, rather than starting from the mobilisation and self-organisation of students.

This fetishism of "student unionism" ignores the need for the left to win leadership of student unions on the basis of mass mobilisation and student support. Student unions are not simply resource organisations that the left can "take control of and run campaigns through".

Because student unions should be organisations that defend all students' rights, the left can maintain leadership of student unions only on the basis of ongoing student mobilisations and campaigns.

For student unions to function as more than just service and welfare providers, the left needs to focus on building broadly supported campaigns against attacks on students and education. This means concentrating on building campaign committees and involving new activists. The alternative is for the student left to get elected to student unions on the basis of "progressive platitudes", without winning large numbers of students to the left's actual campaign perspectives.

This leads to isolation from students or unnecessary political compromises with the right-wing agenda, usually a combination of both. This has happened in NUS, where the left is isolated from student support and constantly compromising with the right as a result.

Build campaigns

In the coming SRC elections around the country, Resistance argues for left campaigns that put up front a fight back program against Liberal and Labor attacks. We need to use these SRC elections to win broad student support for campaigns against VSU and the threat of up-front fees in particular. On this basis we can create active and democratic student unions.

The activity of the student left, however, cannot be limited to campus. All attacks on student rights and education are part of the broader capitalist austerity drive and attack on democratic rights. Limiting political organisation to campus tends to lead to a reformist view of politics.

An organisation that does not aim to mobilise and organise among every exploited and oppressed community and which limits itself to campus activity will find it hard to maintain a revolutionary perspective. The lack of contact with non-campus struggles tends to draw such organisations into narrow, factional "campus politics".

Rather than relying on student mobilisation and the potential solidarity of all those exploited and oppressed, student campaigns get focused on asserting "student union pressure on government". Organising in SRCs and NUS becomes the main strategy, rather than organising students. The main tactics become factional manoeuvres, instead of organising meetings of students, campaign petitions, stalls — in short, a student movement.