NUS Disaffiliation and the Seemingly Unassailable Rise of the 'Ordinary Student'

16/05/2016 17:01 | Updated 16 May 2016

Here they come: the "ordinary students". Shuffling like zombies towards a future they're powerless to influence or control, these identikit individuals are just the latest casualties of the Higher Education assembly-line. To hear the arguments of those currently waging war on the NUS through disaffiliation motions in their own students' unions, "ordinary students" are also everywhere at the moment - though quite how we're supposed to actually identify one remains to be clarified.

Personally, I can think of few things more insulting than being referred to as an "ordinary" anything - particularly a free-thinking individual devoid of agency, intelligence, passions or ideals. To suggest that, just because students enjoy a night out at the SU nightclub or throw themselves into societies, they are ignorant to - or utterly detached from - the world around them is deeply condescending. But of course, those who employ this terminology haven't actually got the interests of "ordinary" students at heart at all.

Pay close attention, then - because the NUS disaffiliation movement offers a stark window onto the Conservative plan for society at large. Behind the language of "ordinary students" resounds the same patronising, detached paternalism which informs Tory rhetoric on "hard-working families" and repeatedly proclaims what's "best" for you - in this instance, the hobbling of a given group's ability to stand up for its collective rights.

Despite the fact that (as noted previously), the functionality and purpose of SUs is inherently left-wing, the NUS is too often dismissed by conservative students as "political" whenever its aims happen to align with leftist party policy. This, though, negates a long history of positive and progressive campaigning - clearly, collectivism isn't so bad when the NUS wins student exemption from Council Tax or forces Parliamentary debates on fees and maintenance grants. In actuality, it's been fighting tirelessly for students' common interests for decades now - including, lest we forget, when tuition fees were introduced by a Labour government. Fees. Cost of living. Visa restrictions. Debt. Employment prospects. Think your biggest concerns or priorities aren't 'political'? Think again. To quote UK agit-rockers Skunk Anansie: "Yes, it's f***ing political - EVERYTHING'S political."

There is, clearly, considerable irony in a group of right-wing activists so frequently critical of boycotts, walkouts and "safe spaces" now attempting to essentially 'No Platform' the NUS for deeply partisan reasons. There's also something fishy about those so often opposed to the practical implementation of democracy - whether that's their willingness to see thousands drop off the electoral register, form a "majority" government with less than a quarter of the population's assent or skimp a referendum win by a few votes here or there - now seeming concerned about the democratic processes of our national body. But of course, all of this fully supports the conservative view of democracy itself: they're in favour of the principle only so long as it continues to serve their individual interests.

And it's here that the mask truly slips. Trade Unions. The BBC. Our NHS. Your local school. And now students' unions. They're after all of it. Anything that connects people together and reminds us that mountains which seem insurmountable as an individual can be conquered by community action. Instead, let's divide and rule. Split us into individual units and pit us against one another. Tell us we're "ordinary".

Clearly, neither SUs or the NUS are perfect - they are democratic organisations run by human beings, and therefore fallible. But they are also open to reform from within - and in order to be part of this conversation, SUs have to have a seat at the table. None of these motions, however, offer any sort of constructive alternative vision for the student movement; they are isolationist and destructive in intent. How we're to see stronger campaigns after unions lose their lobbying power or the national networks which connect thousands of "ordinary students" on a wide range of issues, no-one seems to know.

This insular model is the logical extension of the conservative belief that a designated elite should always hold sway over the rowdy masses. Make no mistake, this is an act of wilful, co-ordinated sabotage on their part - they are absolutely counting on your apathy or dissatisfaction to jimmy the process along, and will appropriate any issue in a bid to further their cause. Combined, these factors provide the perfect storm of political opportunism: a means of crowbarring through motions that would prove counter-intuitive for all students in the long run. The services that will inevitably end up getting cut in SUs across the country are those which enhance, empower, change and sometimes even help to save lives. But what's a life to these self-proclaimed "Exiteers" when there's a political point to score?

Students need to keep their eyes on the ball here: once stripped of our rights, our voice and the ability to organise, we become mere functionaries in a system which absolutely depends on our passive assent and anonymity - the governed, rather than the self-governing. But of course, a union's ability to empower its members is precisely what conservative ideologues have wanted to see curtailed for years now. To that end, the so-called "ordinary student" has been cynically co-opted as a smokescreen against sustained engagement and critical thinking on wider issues affecting Higher Education - not to mention a tacit legitimisation of the existing marketised system itself. It is useful for this purpose because the caricature of the 'apolitical', self-interested student actively perpetuates the notion that the purpose, setup and function of a university education is immutable - it cannot, and therefore should not be changed.

I urge anyone currently voting on this issue to take a long, hard look at the arguments and motivations of those proposing such measures, together with their potential implications for the student body as a whole. For those of you voting for knee-jerk or ideological reasons, this post's take-home message also carries a warning: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. For the next time you require your SU's help or resources with one of the many complex challenges which come with student life, that service or facility may no longer be available - and you'll have only yourselves to blame.