Jamie Woodcock: The National Union of Students and the Left


A new student movement erupted on the campuses and streets of Britain in 2010. The scale of the occupations, walkouts, and demonstrations was far greater than anything in recent years. The flashpoints of the movement, from the occupation of Millbank to the near defeat of the government on the raising of tuition fees, showed new heights of militancy. The role of the National Union of Students (NUS) in this movement was the focus of much discussion, and following the demonstration on 21 November 2012 there has been a renewed interest in its structures. This article seeks to understand the role of the NUS and its relationship to the student movement, and will conclude with a discussion of the approach the left should adopt towards the NUS.

The Movement

The high point of the relationship between the NUS and the movement was the demonstration on the 10 November 2010. Previously, the ‘NUS’s reluctance to challenge the Labour Party was a huge barrier to the movement’, and it is therefore ‘no coincidence that its biggest mobilisation for decades came only once Labour was in opposition’ (Swain, 2011: p98). The election of a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition intent, despite pledges to the contrary, on tripling tuition fees and scrapping EMA laid the basis for a broad mobilisation. The NUS machinery moved into full gear, deploying all of its political, organisational, and financial resources to deliver a huge turnout of 50,000 on 10 November 2010 (Malik and Ratcliffe, 2012). The events of that day highlight the importance of the relationship between official and unofficial networks. NUS delivered numbers far exceeding the reach of the existing activist networks, which worked both with and against NUS leadership.

The events at Millbank ‘would not have happened without the official NUS mobilisation’, but neither would they have happened ‘if activists had been content to simply follow the lead of NUS officials’ (Callinicos and Jones, 2011: p14). This meant working with the leadership to maximise the mobilisation and against the leadership to occupy Millbank. Similarly, after the ‘dithering’ (Kingsley, 2010) of NUS president Aaron Porter, further action would not have been taken without the unofficial networks like Education Activist Network (EAN) and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). There were a series of walkouts, the most successful of which mobilised an estimated 130,000 students (Callinicos and Jones, 2011: p14), leading up to the demonstration outside parliament on 9 December.

The student movement was able to play an important role in the fight against austerity by moving first into action. Trade unions began to organise a fight-back, culminating in the mass strike on 30 November—arguably the largest strike action in Britain since the general strike in 1926 (Jones, 2011), yet this time around students played a very different role. The NUS conference in 2011 had been shaped—at least to some degree—by the student movement preceding it. Now, whereas in 1926 the ‘university students were remembered chiefly as strike-breakers’ (Barker, 2008: p47), in 2011 there was an outpouring of solidarity from students on the picket lines.

The movement further shaped the NUS conference in 2012: it provided opportunity to discuss motions about defending the right to protest and the role of the police in society. The leadership was pressured into calling a demonstration on 21 November 2012; the NUS expected at least 10,000 students to join the demonstration. However, on the day only between 3,000 and 4,000 people made it across London to the rallying point in Kennington Park. The day ended with the President, Liam Burns, being ‘pelted with eggs and fruit at the conclusion of the march’ (Malik and Ratcliffe, 2012).

It is important not to focus only on this particular outburst of frustration and, instead, attempt to understand why the leadership of the NUS behaved in the way it did. The movement in 2012 was very different to that of previous years. The trade union leadership had been able to hold back the pensions dispute, which took the momentum out of the national fight against austerity. The levels of industrial action—especially involving education unions—did not resume in the autumn term of 2012. This disorientation, coupled with a lack of pressure from below, allowed the NUS leadership to demobilise in the run up to 21 November.


The role of the NUS can be understood further by examining the structures and contradictions that exist within it. The NUS is a confederation of six hundred students’ unions; this covers 95% of all higher and further education unions in the UK, representing more than seven million students (NUS, 2012a). The NUS combines three competing interests: activism, lobbying, and service provision. The activism and lobbying components can be understood as two perspectives, summarised as ‘from-above’ and ‘from-below’, to borrow terminology from Hal Draper (1966), on how change can be achieved. Lobbying is an elitist approach that attempts to influence those in power to introduce change ‘from-above’. It stands in contrast to activism, which for this purpose is assumed to require mass participation to force change ‘from-below’.

The third interest concerns the services provided by the NUS and the local unions. The number and scale of services intensified with the establishment of NUS Services Limited (or NUSSL) which is a separate corporate entity that purchases products collectively and provides various support and marketing packages. Students’ unions are large potential markets as they provide over 200 different premises across Britain that include shops, cafés, bars, and music venues, with a total turnover of at least £120 million per year (NUS, 2012b). The service side of the union involves a structure of unelected managers and paid employees that runs in parallel to the elected student positions. Although technically unions are not profit-making enterprises, the logic of running such services tends towards profit maximisation. This can encroach on the interests of students, in particular relating to activism.

An understanding of the social role of the bureaucracy can provide an insight into why the NUS leadership played a similar role to the trade union leadership. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein (1986: p27) explain that:

The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation. Like the God Janus it presents two faces: it balances between the employers and the workers. It holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent. For the official is not an independent arbitrator. If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal challenges to the leadership, or to membership apathy and organisational disintegration.

This analysis of union bureaucracies clarifies why sell-outs occur, but also crucially how pressure can be brought to bear on the leadership by the rank and file members. It is important to note, however, that the student and trade union bureaucracies are not subject to identical pressures. Student union officers represent a transitional group in society that do not play a role in production and therefore do not possess the economic power of workers.

In addition, the role of the Labour Party needs to be included in this understanding. Their wholly inadequate strategy—implemented by both the NUS leadership and significant sections of the trade union bureaucracy—is to wait until the next general election to fight austerity at the ballot box. The NUS is actively engaged in a project to train activists in anticipation for the door-knocking and electioneering in 2015. In the meantime the devastating effects of privatisation will continue, not only in education, but also in the NHS and the rest of the public sector.

Student Union Democracy

The NUS and the affiliated student unions have undergone a series of changes, which have limited activism. The attempts to curtail the power of student unions have been taking place for over thirty years; turning points were the 1994 Education Act and the 2006 Charities Act. These acts formalised the structures of student unions and then forced them to become registered charities, which further shifted the balance away from activism towards service provision. The Charities Commission (2010) dictated that: ‘union funds cannot be used to promote or support campaigns on matters which may be of general interest or concern but which do not affect members of the union as students.’ These rules can be used to pressure union officers over the legal risks and potential ramifications of engaging in activism. Before 2010 an example of this was the general managers’ refrain of ‘you can’t do that: it’s ultra vires!’, i.e. something beyond legal authority. However, with the advent of direct attacks on education this has become far less common, being much more closely associated with anti-war, anti-fascism, or Palestine solidarity campaigns.

The problem of restrictions is not limited to the new rules and laws. Nonetheless, Dan Swain (2011: p107) notes that ‘there has so far been no legal action taken against unions on the basis of these changes’; it does, however, represent a ‘breathtaking restriction on the political independence’ of student unions. The move to charity status was accompanied by widespread changes to the constitutions and internal democracy of student unions. The leadership of the NUS did not fight the attacks on democracy that were being imposed; instead, it saw it as an opportunity to restructure the union in the consumer services direction. The NUS and many individual student unions underwent lengthy governance reviews. The core of these changes involved reducing the size of national conference and the introduction of trustee boards. These boards, now present at both a local and national level, established an unaccountable structure above the elected officers to oversee their decisions and hold the power to veto. These transformations—although not implemented evenly in every Students’ Union—have to be seen as ‘intimately linked to a political agenda to erode solidarity between students and workers in struggle’ (Swain, 2011: p106).

The Intervention of the Left

The objective circumstances that the left operates in now are characterised by the lack of an organised fight in higher education, a trade union leadership holding back the struggle, and a student movement at a low point compared to 2010. However, the situation is far from static. The implementation of austerity in education will lead to local flashpoints in the coming months, as the contradictions of the new fees and funding regime come to the fore. This has the potential to force a polarisation between the leadership and those actually resisting austerity. There are two important factors to consider in this situation: the majority of students still put faith in the national union, while the government is determined to continue with austerity. These can combine to ‘present revolutionaries with tremendous opportunities to intervene successfully’ (Callinicos and Turner, 1977: p13).

A successful intervention by the left in the student movement and the NUS requires an ‘understanding of the gap between its own ideas and the concerns of the mass of students’ (Harman, 1970: p1). This can only be achieved by attempting to relate to increasingly broad layers of students. As Chris Harman (1970: p1) has pointed out, student movements tend to put forward ‘transitional’ demands regarding elements of student control, the opening of financial books, or divestment campaigns. When raising such demands, students come into conflict with the authorities, with their own contradictory ideas, and with the inability of the NUS leadership to fight for or deliver these demands. This creates a condition in the movement that ‘forces many students into a debate that can only be of advantage to revolutionary ideas.’

Despite this, the state of the student movement in 2012 has been the source of much frustration on the left. There has been a tendency to try and replicate the events of 2010: to chase the possibility of another Millbank moment. This is not allowed for in the current state of the movement and lacks an understanding of how to build outwards in a way that will involve increasingly larger numbers of people. It is wrong to regard the student movement as a revolutionary movement in itself. Although there can be spectacular moments in the development of a militant student movement, ‘in the long run these come to an impasse […] for students do not have real power to transform society’ (Harman, 1970: p1).


It is important to understand that the internal contradictions in the NUS have brought it to this point. The tensions between activism, lobbying, and service provision limit the union’s ability to form a coherent strategy capable of inspiring or achieving serious resistance. The role of the Labour Party also shapes the kind of resistance that the leadership is willing to organise, requiring passivity until 2015, followed by a vote for the Labour Party in the general election. Here the NUS again appears to have, in the words of David Widgery (1969: p119) ‘all the passion of an ashtray.’

Building an alternative to the NUS at this moment, however, is not a solution to the problems facing the student movement: there are no shortcuts to building a successful mass movement that can fight and win, and Widgery’s (1969: p137) argument still rings true: ‘a real student movement will grow out of real struggle, not vice versa.’ To break from the NUS at a low point of struggle would take a minority of radical students away from the majority and isolate them, at precisely the moment when relating to them is important. Rather, the left must find ways to strengthen the activism component within the NUS to push forward its internal contradictions. The NUS still has the potential to mobilise large numbers of students and it is not immune to pressure from below, which can open up huge opportunities for the left.

Equally, the scale of the attacks on education must inform the kind of strategy that the left pursues in the student movement and the NUS. This is only one element of a much broader agenda, which can only be fought successfully as part of a wider struggle. There is an objective necessity to fight alongside other groups and it is of critical importance to forge links with the organised working class. It is the working class—not groups of militant students, not an alternative student union structure, or elite groups acting on their behalf—that have the potential to defeat austerity and radically transform society. This does not mean that student struggle should be subordinated to supporting workers’ struggle; the interplay between the two can add dynamism to both. Instead, the left must continue to intervene inside the NUS, putting forward alternative strategies and contesting the leadership. The building of independent networks that work inside and outside of the NUS is of real importance, as is the deepening and broadening of their reach. The crucial pivot of success, however, remains the combination of two things: on one hand, making links outside the student movement, and on the other hand building a revolutionary current within it—neither of which are solved by imposing abstract organisational forms. •

Jamie Woodcock is a PhD student at Goldsmiths and member of the NUS national executive council.

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Barker, C. (2008) ‘Some Reflections on Student Movements of the 1960s and early 1970s’, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 81: 43-91.

Birchall, I. (2008) ‘Seizing the time: Tony Cliff and 1968’, International Socialism, 118: 95-112.

Callinicos, A. and Turner, S. (1975) ‘The Student Movement Today’, International Socialism (1st series), 75: 9-15.

Callinicos, A. and Jones, J. (2011) ‘The student revolt and the crisis’, International Socialism, 129: 3-21.

Charity Commission. (2010) Students’ Unions: A Guide, http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/About_us/OGs/g048c003.aspx

Cliff, T. and Gluckstein, D. (1986) Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, London: Bookmarks.

Draper, H. (1966) ‘The Two Souls of Socialism’, New Politics, 5, 1: 57-84.

Harman, C. (1970) ‘Students’, International Socialism (1st series), 43.

Jones, O. (2011) ‘Striking workers must unite across Europe’, The Guardian (25 Nov).

Kingsley, P. (2010) ‘Student Protests: NUS President Apologises for “Spineless Dithering”’, The Guardian (28 Nov).

Malik, S. and Ratcliffe, R. (2012) ‘Student march ends in eggs, fruit and anger’, The Guardian (21 Nov).

NUS. (2012a) About NUS, http://www.nus.org.uk/en/about-nus.

NUS. (2012b) Trade Marketing, http://www.nus.org.uk/cy/contact-us/commercial-services/trade-marketing.

Swain, D. (2011) ‘The student movement today’, International Socialism, 130: 95-112.

Widgery, D. (1969) ‘NUS—the Students’ Muffler’, in A. Cockburn and R. Blackburn (eds.), Student Power: Problems, Diagnosis, Action. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 


  1. Pingback: Great article on the politics of the UK’s National Union of Students | dropitintheocean

  2. Pingback: List of Publications | Jamie Woodcock

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