Thursday 10 February marks one hundred years since students came together to build the National Union of Students, or NUS. In the shadow of a global pandemic, students joined forces and put their efforts into a movement of international solidarity. Since then, the student movement has done so much of which we should be proud.
By the Second World War, NUS was at the front and centre of commemorating those who lost their lives fighting the Nazis. Bringing students’ unions from across the world together, we established the International Day of the Student to remember the nine students killed and over 1,200 sent to concentration camps when the Nazis stormed universities in Czechia. This legacy of fighting fascism has been central to our movement ever since.
The end of war brought with it new opportunities for NUS. Throughout this period, we worked closely with the Labour government of the day to influence education policy, and national policy, like the introduction of the NHS. But as our union’s membership grew and reached the millions, so did opposition to our ideals. By the 1960s and 1970s the student movement’s political conflicts were becoming more and more frequent.
NUS had proudly evolved to become the leading platform for pioneering debates on social issues deemed ‘unacceptable’ by wider society. At NUS Conference in April 1971, students joined together and passed a motion in support of gay rights, becoming the largest organisation in the country at the time to hold that policy.
Seventeen years before Margaret Thatcher’s government was introducing Section 28, it was the student movement that was coming together to state an irrefutable fact—that gay students should not be treated any differently to their peers. By 1973 NUS had set a target for the establishment of 700 gay clubs on campuses, and with the help of the introduction of the Gay Rights Campaign report, the number increased notably in just a few years.
Our support for liberation campaigns did not stop there. We helped create the Anti-Apartheid Movement Campaign in 1972, which won university divestment from corporations engaged in trade with South Africa. By the end of the 1970s, eighteen universities had withdrawn their financial investments in South Africa. Our work on divestment, decolonisation, and global solidarity against colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid continues in NUS to this day.
We continued speaking out ahead of the curve. In 1976, we introduced ‘The Disabled Student’ report, calling for all institutions to ensure they were fully accessible for all. Students came together to push for this commonsense reform, but almost half a century later, students with disabilities still face a huge admissions gap. As with divestment, anti-racism, and LGBT+ rights, we still have so far to go—proof of the overwhelming need for radical change.
Throughout the next decade we brought students together to fight plans made by hostile Tory governments. One campaign successfully defeated a plan to introduce a registrar of students in students’ unions, with the aim of restricting both their activities and finances; another campaign secured a reversal of the fifty percent cut to student grants.
As we entered a new millennium, NUS secured manifesto commitments from all major parties ahead of the 2001 election that there would be no top-up tuition fees. However, the Labour government under Tony Blair went on to break their promise and put forward the Higher Education Act to introduce £3,000 annual fees.
Tens of thousands of students mobilised to oppose this change, but in the face of last-minute government concessions on increased grants and bursaries for vulnerable students, the plans passed by the thinnest of margins (316 versus 311). Despite that, our power was inescapable: this NUS campaign had forced the largest rebellion against a three-line whip in over fifty years, slashing the government’s majority of 167 down to just five.
After a momentous internal restructure, we jump forward to the present. My tenure as Vice-President for Higher Education at NUS has been dominated by the impact of the pandemic. Since its onset, we’ve secured £806 million worth of rent refunds, hardship funding, and student support, U-turns from the Tories on racist and elitist A-Level and BTEC grades, and no detriment policies across higher education. More fundamentally, after a period of soul-searching, we have been rebuilding our movement to a position where we can properly focus on the issues that matter to students.
We’ve also had other wins. Just last week, we forced the government to back down from plans to reduce the student loan repayment threshold. But it’s clear to me we’re tinkering with a fundamentally broken system. What we need is to flip the table and envision something totally new.
Thanks to the work of those in the last century, students are in a much better position—but so much still needs to be done. With a Higher Education White Paper expected from the government any day now, we’ve no time to lose. Unity is strength, and we need to come together to fight this government which is hellbent on letting students down.
We need to prepare for the inevitable upcoming fights. We also need to imagine a pioneering system: one at the cutting edge, altogether different and altogether better, operating for the benefit of society and actually valuing the needs and desires of students. Something accessible, fully funded, lifelong, and democratic.
Eleven years ago, students came together to resist £9,000 fees and marketisation. Since then, we’ve exhausted ourselves trying to reform this system. Reform is futile: we need transformation made by us, with us and for us.
That’s why we’re striking on 2 March. Join us. Our current system is broken. Together, we can imagine and build something better.