'No' to NUS affiliation at ANU
By Sarah Stephen
Our education system is under attack. Over the last 10 years the ALP government has moved rapidly towards the introduction of a user-pays system that allows only those who are rich enough access to universities.
The key question for students is: how can we best organise ourselves to fight these attacks? The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) claims that the best way forward is for universities to affiliate to the National Union of Students (NUS). Resistance disagrees.
In August 1994, the Australian National University administration proposed a $12,000 fee for the legal workshop course. There was a massive student response. The Law School held a number of demonstrations and a one-day strike. These actions led to bigger and broader demonstrations on campus. Just before the mid-semester break, 250 students began an occupation of the chancellery, which lasted nine days. The No Fees Campaign later ran in the SRC elections and won most of the positions. These were some of the most significant events in the student movement for years.
Students on ANU heard almost nothing from NUS during the occupation. We contacted them several times asking for support for our campaign, and money to help build it. All that arrived was $250 from their multimillion-dollar budget.
NUS's general inactivity and its inability to coordinate campaigns led ANU activists to initiate a national No Fees Conference. The conference, held last December, brought together 200 student activists from across Australia with the aim of coordinating a national No Fees Campaign.
The ISO says that NUS has called a National Day of Action (NDA) three times this year, the next one being on August 24. Yet ISO members who attended the No Fees Conference know that it was this conference that called those actions. Under pressure from activists building the campaign, and because they need to be seen to be leading it, NUS was forced to endorse the NDAs, but even their own publicity acknowledges that the actions were initiatives of the December conference.
NUS was set up in 1987 by Labor Party students at the height of a growing campaign against fees being introduced by the ALP government. Since then, NUS has always been dominated by ALP students on the national executive — the body with the power to veto any decision within NUS. Their role has been to direct student anger away from attacking the ALP government directly, and away from mass mobilisations.
Choosing to ignore these facts, the ISO's pro-affiliation argument is wonderfully simple — students need unions, therefore ANU should affiliate to NUS. But NUS is not a union — it's a peak body of affiliated student unions. There's nothing about peak bodies that makes them essential to defending students' rights.
If we're talking about how to achieve the most effective forms of national coordination for student campaigns, then there is a whole range of alternative forms: the No Fees Conference, for example, or the telephone hook-up that was organised this year between activists from campaign groups around the country.
The ISO fails to look at NUS's record in practice in assessing whether or not affiliation will be a step forward for the campaign against fees. Resistance opposes affiliation because of the overwhelmingly destructive role that NUS has played in the student movement since its formation. The only way to develop a campaign against fees that can win is to develop it independently of NUS.
[Sarah Stephen is general secretary of the ANU Students' Association and a member of Resistance.]