How the left should approach NUS

November 27, 1996

The National Union of Students national conference is being held from December 8 to 14 in Ballarat. A major topic on the agenda is restructuring in the light of reduced funding caused by "voluntary student unionism" in several states. Printed below is an open letter from Resistance to Left Alliance regarding proposals for this restructuring.

Resistance sees the current debate around restructuring NUS as a useful one to focus discussion amongst the left in NUS, to gain some unity on the problems with NUS and the left's strategy to overcome them. Within this framework, we believe that the restructuring position put forward by sections of Left Alliance has serious flaws.

Resistance sees the central problem of NUS as its domination by Labor students and its existence as a peak body not based on individual membership and participation. NUS, as an organisation of affiliated campuses, is more of a student parliament as opposed to a union based on control by student activists, to be used as a tool to mobilise students and raise their political consciousness.

NUS is a policy development and service-centred organisation which is used by Labor students as a method of control and cooption of students and to provide a career path for ALP hacks.

NUS is currently severely limited in its ability to implement policy because to implement the policy of "no fees for degrees" there would need to be a thorough campaign that convinces students of the demands and mobilises them against the government. As it stands, most students and many activists would not even know about NUS policies.

Resistance's proposals for restructuring NUS are for a more decentralised structure that concentrates power closer to students in the state branches, and a more open structure to facilitate student involvement and control of the union. State branches are more immediately accessible to students and have a closer contact with student campaigns. The left is more able to win control of state branches and — as the experience of the Non-Aligned Left-controlled NSW state branch this year has shown — use NUS resources and profile to the benefit of the education campaign.

Labor students are in favour of a further centralisation of the union, and a virtual abolition of state branches. Unfortunately, some members of Left Alliance are also arguing in favour of more centralisation of power within the national executive and state executives.

This is consistent with Left Alliance's historical position of principled support for NUS, rather than a tactical approach which assesses how the left should relate to NUS at any given point based on what is the best way to reach out to and relate to radicalising students and wrest control of the student movement away from Labor students.

The first problem with the LA proposal is what is left out: the crucial issue of the funding balance of the union. This means the maintenance of the status quo, where two thirds of the campus affiliation fees are controlled by the national office, and only one third goes to state branches.

LA proposes that the 12-member national executive elected from the floor of the annual NUS national conference elect the national office bearers from within its ranks, instead of the current situation, in which conference elects the officers. It also proposes to reduce the input of state branches into NUS by removing the voting rights of state branch presidents on the national executive. Within the framework of increasing the weight of the national office, it proposes to increase the number of full-time paid office-bearers from five to between six and seven.

Its proposals to open up the structures of state committees (which are currently formed around such areas as education, women's rights and international students' issues) to more students while not decentralising any decisions, will only allow for the further cooption of student activists. The proposal amounts to streamlining the work of the bureaucracy by off-loading the implementation of its decisions onto students while not involving them in any decision making.

LA then presents a number of proposals which are simply superficial name changes. For example, the president would become the "regional organiser" and committees would be called "action committees". It also proposes that it be on paper that the president has to visit member organisations at least once a semester. These proposals will not change a thing.

LA suggests extra full-time national office-bearers like environment, overseas student and sexuality officers. These are important areas for NUS to take up and areas where the left is generally more active, which would improve its chances of winning control of these positions. However, together with LA's other proposals for centralisation, this reveals a mistaken approach of playing numbers games with the Labor students.

Increasing the power of the national office and the national executive, which do not have direct contact with campaigns on the ground, and undermining the state branches, decreases the left's ability to influence NUS. The building of strong campaigns and encouraging activists' participation in state branches are the best way to increase the left's influence within NUS, with the aim of making it a truly democratic body able to defend and extend students' rights.

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