Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Aaron Porter is no longer fit to lead the student movement
Mary Robertson, supporter of the Free Education Campaign, writes in today’s Guardian on the need for an NUS leader who will fight for us, not one who admits defeat before the battle over tuition fees has started.
The gap between the official and the unofficial student movements is growing. Last month, tens of thousands of students gathered on Parliament Square in an attempt to prevent parliament passing legislation that would allow tuition fees to increase – the latest in a series of demonstrations, occupations and other actions over the preceding month. As students attempted to defend their education system, around the corner, tucked out of sight on the Victoria Embankment, 200 people were mourning its death at a glow-stick vigil organised by the National Union of Students (NUS).
The contrast between these two events – both in terms of size of attendance and in tone – provided a stark illustration of why the NUS president, Aaron Porter, is no longer fit to lead the student movement. He demonstrated this yet again at this week's NUS National Executive Council (NEC) meeting by voting against supporting two further student actions in January.
Parliament may have passed the tuition fees bill on 9 December, but students involved in mobilisations at the end of last year have made clear that they are not giving up. The phrase "this is just the beginning" has become our mantra. It is evidence of our resolve that we have called two major actions for January: a "Save EMA" day of action on 26 January and a "Defend Education" demonstration in London on 29 January. The latter is intended as a complement to a youth rally for jobs taking place in Manchester on the same day. It has the backing of the UCU, Unite, GMB, NUS Black Students Campaign, the Coalition of Resistance, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the Education Activist Network and the Free Education Campaign. Yet in a clear sign of how out of step the NUS leadership is with its members and the rest of the union movement, Porter and the majority of the NUS NEC voted against backing either.
At a time when union leaders such as Len McCluskey are praising students and calling on the labour movement to follow in their footsteps, the NUS president is refusing to back further actions to defend education.
It is also a sign – and not the first one – that Porter seems to be giving up the fight. Over Christmas, he wrote an open letter to Simon Hughes MP, the government's newly appointed advocate for access to education. In it Porter says: "We are finding it hard to get the government to explain how it will ensure that £9k rather than £6k fees will be the 'exception'". There you have it: Porter's response to the threat to higher education is to politely request an explanation of how tuition fees will only be doubled rather than tripled in most cases.
The NEC vote was just the latest in a series of betrayals. The NUS repeatedly failed to back, let alone call, days of action in the weeks leading up to the vote. Porter only belatedly pledged support for occupations and then failed to deliver on his promise to provide them with legal support. In the days after the last demo, he refused to make a statement condemning police violence, despite more than 43 students being injured.
Students need a fighting union. The fact that 52,000 people from right across the country attended on 10 November demonstrates the ability the NUS has to mobilise when it puts its infrastructure behind it. We move into the new year with the firm belief that we can defeat the government's plans. But to do so we need an NUS leadership that will fight with us and for us, not one that will resign itself to defeat before the battle has barely commenced.
Two universities – Birkbeck and the School of Oriental and African Studies – have already passed motions of no confidence in Aaron Porter. Twenty five will be enough to trigger a national conference and a campaign for this to happen is already gathering momentum.
It is not too late for Aaron Porter to change his mind. Actions planned for 26 and 29 January are crucial next steps in our fight against the government's cuts. The NUS needs to demonstrate its willingness to lead the fight by backing both events. Otherwise, it's time for Aaron Porter to go.