The National Union of Students (NUS) has been widely criticized by student activists after a decision was made to withdraw its support from what was hoped to be one of the biggest student’s demonstrations since 2010, due to ‘safety issues’.
In reaction to the NUS’s decision, a number of Students’ Unions and Guilds across the country followed suit, including those of the University of Bath and Bath Spa University.
Jordan Kenny, the University of Bath Students’ Union President, stated: “The safety of our members is of paramount concern and, whilst this remains at risk, we will continue to support the principles of free education but not through a demonstration that continues to have outstanding safety concerns.”
The Students’ Union had previously issued a indicative poll on the issue which received 108 votes, less than 1% of the student body, of which 86% voted in favour of supporting the demonstration.
A number of students reacted badly to the SU’s decision, with Christopher Roche, a University of Bath student activist, calling Mr Kenny “a disgrace and an embarrassment”. A small number of students called for Mr Kenny to resign.
The national protest, organised for 19th November was organised by the Student Assembly Against Austerity and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) in order to protest for politicians to scrap tuition fees. Students will be marching through central London towards Westminster.
Toni Pearce, President of the NUS, has said in a statement that the march poses an ‘unacceptable level of risk to our members”.
Ms Pearce also states that the “plans that are in place do not give us confidence that the demonstration will be accessible to all students – in particular disabled students.” And that from a risk assessment point of view, “it is clear that there are inadequate measures in place to mitigate against significant risks”.
Additionally Pearce highlights that “there is no public liability in place” and that it is “clear that the concerns of the NUS liberation officers about accessibility, safe space and the ability for liberation groups to be in involved have not been met.”
Despite the fact that she adds that “the NUS has a policy to support free education” and that they will continue to lobby and campaign for this, she does not believe that anyone should take part in the demonstration due to the lack of safety requirements.
It is clear that the issue of free education has been a point of contention within the NUS. This can be seen by the fact that last year’s national conference in Liverpool voted narrowly to support free education, as a significant number of people support graduate tax within the union.
The NCAFC has criticised the NUS’ decision to withdraw support as “ridiculous”. Beth Redmond, organiser for the NCAFC said the stance the NUS have decided to take “directly contradicts the democratic mandate taken by conference and the NEC.”
Redmond also notes that despite their”tiny shoestring budget”, they have been working hard to “ensure the demonstration is organised properly”. She also adds that “dozens of campuses and student unions are mobilising from all over the country, and this demonstration should mark the beginning of a new wave of student activism – not just against fees, but for a transformative vision for free, democratic and public education, and that is also the democratically mandated policy of NUS. It is clear that the priorities of some in the NUS leadership are elsewhere.”
Fiona Edwards, one of the organisers of the Student Assembly Against Austerity also strongly disagrees with the NUS’ stance saying that “There are no legitimate safety concerns, so [she]can only guess it’s a political objection.”
Despite Pearce claiming safety is a serious issue with the demonstration Edwards has pointed out that they have “negotiated a safe and accessible route with the police, and we’re working closely with councils and Transport for London to make sure the day runs as smoothly as possible.”
Edwards still believes that there will be thousands of people ready to march on the 19th even though the NUS are “putting out false information that is just going to spread confusion.”
This demonstration will be the beginning of a series of demonstrations before the general election to underline the students’ demands and pressure politicians to support them.
Photo credit: Matt Dinnery