This week, 10,000 students from across the UK returned to the streets of London to demonstrate against higher education cuts and the government's tuition fee rises. If you're feeling a strong sense of déjà vu, you're not alone.
Wednesday's demonstration, despite not garnering much coverage in the mainstream press beyond the short term, revealed a lot about the modern student movement. Despite a well-attended march across London, by the time protestors arrived in Kennington for what was intended to be a climactic rally numbers were reported to have shrunk to just four hundred. Further embarrassment for the NUS arrived when a group of students forced union president Liam Burns from the stage midway through his speech. Whilst not as explosive as 2010's miniature riot in Millbank, the fact that yet another major student demonstration ended in disarray is an uncomfortable fact for the NUS. In the wake of these events the NUS needs to be able to answer some tough questions and identify what is handicapping student politics in 2012; I've drawn out three areas from which it can start that process.
Firstly, despite this being the first major demonstration organised by the National Union of Students since the headline-grabbing protests of 2010, the intervening years have not been idle ones for student activists. Across the UK, students have protested in their cities and campuses for the last two years, and even managed to organise their own national demo in 2011 without the input of the NUS. Whilst grassroots activists have formed networks, marched through the streets and occupied campus buildings, the union that is supposed to represent them has been invisible, on the national stage as well as the local one. At a time when the NUS should have been at the forefront of student campaigning, it has shirked its commitments.
Secondly, the NUS is failing to truly represent the views of every student. Although it is patently impractical to cater to everyone, the NUS still claims to represent us all. Instead, many of elected positions are held by students who are far more politically ideological than the average student, leading to a reactionary tendency. Consequently, despite its successful welfare campaigns and an admirable push in 2010 against the tuition fees legislation, the union is riven with internal disputes. The furious discussions surrounding the route of the recent march and the storming of the stage at the recent rally are typical of the issues the union now faces.
Thirdly, the union had failed to apply consistent pressure on the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on the issue of tuition fees. Although the ideals of the Quebecoise students are echoed around debating halls and online forums, the sustained campaign those students launched lasted over six months - in contrast, the NUS-led opposition to fees in the UK ebbed away after 2010. If the NUS were totally committed to a fight for 'fair and funded education for all' as they proclaim on their website, then why has it taken them two years to hold another national demo, and why did they sabotage that protest with a noncommittal march route?
When I was in London for the first wave of protests in 2010, I met students who were new to politics and to protest; where are they now? If the NUS continues to be occupied by factional interests, with only reactionary aims, then it will cease to be a body that represents all students.