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Saturday, 16 February 2013

All Power to the Rod.


 You may have heard that in the spirit of student politics an 'inanimate carbon rod' has been nominated as a candidate for the President of the NUS. Finally, the NUS has found an appropriate candidate to make good on the legacy of Aaron Porter. When Porter stepped down in the midst of the fallout from the student demonstrations his seat at the NUS was kept warm by Liam Burns, who secured his re-election in 2012. Yet the last national demonstration held by the NUS failed to match the numbers achieved in 2010. The march climaxed with students lobbing eggs at the NUS President. The education reforms implemented by the Coalition remain of high priority on student concerns, with the infamous betrayal fees of £9,000 now enforced. Believe it or not, these issues are far from a distant memory of the past. And still, the legitimate question of whether or not austerity should have been undertaken can't even be raised in Parliament.
 
 Not that we can even expect this question to be addressed by pseudo-institutions like the NUS. If it could influence public policy radically, then it would've never emerged in the first place. The Union itself seems to function as a spring-board mechanism for those looking to land in snug jobs in journalism and the Labour Party (see Jack Straw, see David Aaronovitch, see Phil Woolas, Stephen Twigg and Trevor Phillips). It's a ladder to be climbed in other words. It should be no surprise then that Aaron Porter was a contributor to What next for Labour? on higher education policy; he also writes for Left Foot Forward. At the NUS Aaron Porter staked out a position as an advocate of the graduate tax dressed as the progressive alternative to fees. Behind closed doors Mr Porter thought it apt to argue for market rates of interest on student loans, cuts of 61% and 48% to grants and teaching budgets. Since leaving office Porter has become an 'education consultant' to universities charging £8,500 per 10 day course.

 Since Labour has proven itself unable to conjure up a properly oppositional stance to austerity, preferring to cautiously stick with austerity lite, it's unlikely that we will see any shift from the incumbent administration on these 'reforms'. Unfortunately, this will be the case no matter which Miliband is leader. By comparison the NUS has long stood as the self-aware institution of student centrism. This became apparent in the aftermath of the national demonstration in 2010 which climaxed with the vandalism of Millbank. Aaron Porter appeared on Newsnight next to ULU President Clare Solomon and opposite Liberal hypocrite Simon Hughes. Student politics was once more ensnared in an oscillation between a self-satisfied moderatism and an ultra-leftist radicalism. The NUS criticised the violence as the actions of an extremist minority that had poisoned the student movement. Meanwhile ULU defended the events at Millbank on the grounds it was an expression of legitimate grievances and concerns.

 It's a tension between those in comfortable resistance and the smugly passive. Then Porter caved to pressure to resign and Solomon was booted out by a deus ex machina from the Right. Around the same time the mass-demonstrations by students had, for the most part, slowed to a stop. That's not to be interpreted as the victory of the student Right against the student Left, or even as the end result of infighting among student leftists. The tuition fees were passed into law and the impetus for large-scale activism was expunged by tidal waves of apathy and despair. The movement never had any central leadership, only vocal spokespeople. By the time of defeat it could no longer more forward as a hydra-headed beast wracked by disputes over ends and means. Its anarchic constitution fell flat against the stone walls of the Establishment. The lack of unity couldn't withstand an overwhelming sense of defeat once the fees were passed into law. And so, the movement without a centre faded away. The MPs were whittled down to little more than 20 votes in the end, a slight defeat.

 Long dead seem the days when the students could light the march to set the Establishment ablaze. This is what we felt for ’68 and what we'll feal for ’10 in decades to come. Yet our 2010 was bigger than the protests of 1968, at least in Britain. The Continentals have always been better than us at this sort of thing. The reaction to the violence of the protests was quintessentially English in its outrage at the disruption. On May ’68 in Paris, Roger Scruton reflected “I suddenly realized I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans... That's when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.As for NUS it is the only institution to succeed in being more pointless than ULU. The Union could do far more damage with a tool in charge than an actual tool. At the best of times student politics, when it is deserving of the designation 'political', may converge with national politics. The rest of the time it serves as a wearisome spectacle that brings the observer to utter disillusionment.

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