England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Rebuild a fighting student movement to reclaim education!

Resistance is rising among students and young people – from the student rent strikes in 2020-21, to student participation in Kill the Bill, BLM, protests against gender violence and war.

At the same time, the Tory government is planning a full-scale attack on students, lowering the threshold for student loan repayments to £25,000 and lengthening the debt repayment period from 30 to 40 years. This will mean £35bn being pulled from student pockets after they graduate by this government of the super-rich. 

Student Socialist Alternative believes there is a great opportunity now to rebuild a student movement to fight and struggle for the changes that students urgently need. The recent walk-out called by the National Union of Students on March 2  to coincide with the UCU strikes represented a positive step in the right direction. It had a relatively small turnout, however, but this did not mean that the demands of the walk out – for accessibility, funding, democracy and lifelong education – were not popular. Far from it! But all students who want to fight back will be asking how students can be mobilised effectively to fight for change.

There have been some steps forward at the top of the NUS, in the election for example of Larissa Kennedy, a left-wing candidate that threw her support behind the rent strikes last year.

The NUS, however, is not an organisation associated with struggle for most students. Very few today look at the NUS, or indeed campus students unions, as organisations that will represent and defend them – as ‘their unions’. Students who look increasingly to fight back on campus, or more broadly toanti-system, anti-oppression and anti-capitalist struggle will rarely see their student union or NUS as a national organisation as their first port of call. This could potentially be reversed, but we say the NUS needs to give a national lead in fighting to radically transform students’ unions across the country into fighting bodies, and to completely dispense with the ‘lobbying group’ or ‘charity’ model that leads many students to see NUS as a TOTUM card and little else. 

At this year’s NUS conference, on 28-29 March, SSA supporters are calling for a vote for all left candidates who pledge to use their positions to support free education, to mobilise in solidarity with UCU staff members taking strike action across the country and to help organise struggle against climate change, war, oppression and imperialism. But doing this will mean more. It will mean fighting to build a fighting, democratic union that fights for free education, fully-funded student grants, an end to university marketisation, and for genuine, bottom-up, democratic control of higher education for all. 


A clear problem facing the NUS at this stage is that,  although there are currently some genuine left-wing officers in prominent positions in the NUS and some steps forward, there has still been an over-focus on the NUS ‘lobbying’ governments to win minor victories, as opposed to focussing on the power of student struggle. Even in cases of positive motions being passed, as in last year’s conference where a motion passed positively calling on the NUS to assist in setting up a national student renters union, little progress seems to have been made. 

There has been no serious attempt to turn the substantial resources and structures of students unions at local and NUS at national level towards mobilisation of the mass of students to be an active part in the struggles that are so needed. 

This is tied to the severe lack of democratic channels for decision making. Over numerous years, the yearly conference has been gutted as a decision-making body. Conferences in the student and workers movements must be avenues for student activists to have a full say over the future of our unions and movements. However, very little time has been allocated to discussing the six motions that have made their way to the conference this year. Indeed, the low number of motions itself speaks to the lack of democracy – more than ten times this number would have been debated at conference just a few years ago. The model the leadership has put forward of separated ‘workshops’ in effect removes the possibility of all conference delegates participating in these debates. 

Where now?

Socialists in the student movement counterpose this to a bold and democratic approach of building movements to fight for these changes – an approach that could tap into a massive pool of student support. This is made all the more necessary given the raft of anti-student attacks being floated by the Tories! 

As a first step, it will be important for all those who want to take part in rebuilding this type of movement – left-led Student Unions, individuals and student anti-cuts groups and campaigns, will need to organise democratically in a united way from below, around a set of clear demands to reclaim our education from the capitalist market. 

Forming rank-and-file student conferences and assemblies would be an important step. Recently at almost a dozen universities across the country – from SOAS to Manchester – students staged university building occupations to support UCU strikes and demand managers meet the demands of our staff. A conference to establish a democratic committee to coordinate further actions like these and discuss how to reach out to the wider mass of students could be a crucial step to rebuilding a movement that is genuinely connected with the needs for a mass student fightback.

Student Socialist Alternative will be organising and building as part of our movement to do all we can to help in building this. If you agree, then join us today!

We say

  • Resist the Tory student loan reforms! Strike, occupy and protest for free education. 
  • Fight for funding to provide student grants and abolish fees. Build a movement to tax the rich and seize the wealth of the billionaires. Build a mass movement to smash racism on campus. Abolish prevent, for democratic control of the curriculum by education workers and students as part of the fight to decolonise education. 
  • Build the struggle for liberation. Organise against sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and all forms of oppression. Build the struggle against endemic violence against women, LGBTQ+ people and people of colour on and off campus. 
  • Linking a rebuilt student movement with the workers movement! Solidarity with UCU, escalate the strikes for national joint worker-student strike action
  • Democratise education – decisions about education should be taken by students, education workers and the wider community – not VCs and managers on six figure salaries. Open the books on university finances so we know where investments come from. Renationalise and fully-fund education. End all investments into fossil fuel and dirty energy companies.
  • Stop the war – build a mass movement to oppose war, imperialism and militarism.
  • Nationalise the key sections of the economy under workers’ control – to democratically plan the economy in the interests of people and the planet.
  • For a socialist world free of oppression, poverty and war!

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