‘We need to make a principled leftwing intervention into NUS’: interview with Hattie Craig, candidate for VP Higher Education
William Pinkney-Baird interviews Hattie Craig, standing for NUS Vice President for Higher Education, in the first of a series of interviews with some of the left-wing candidates for the NUS leadership.
Last April, the National Union of Students (NUS) passed a policy motion to support free education, ending over a decade in which this body representing millions of students across the country supported tuition fees. However, since that time, NUS has taken very little action to actively campaign for free education. In November, a coalition of student campaign groups organised a national demo for free education in London but the NUS leadership cut its support at the last minute. Although the demo went ahead, and was attended by over 10,000, this move undermined the impact it could have had, and led to many Students’ Unions withdrawing their support.
I was recently talking to Hattie Craig, standing for NUS Vice President for Higher Education, who believes this move is representative of a broader culture within NUS. After nearly five years of student campaigning (she took part in the national demo in 2010 that smashed up the Conservative Party HQ) she became a sabbatical officer at the University of Birmingham. It was in this role that she became involved in NUS structures—and ‘realised just how bad they were, just how bureaucratic they were, and just how opposed they were to activists organising on their own initiative.’ As students in her campus were suspended and arrested for direct action, NUS provided little support.
The decision by the NUS leadership to cut support for last November’s demo was, for Hattie, the final straw: ‘It made me realise that we need to make a principled leftwing intervention into NUS conference, to take on the leadership and culture within NUS which is so opposed to campaigning and organising.’
This led to her decision to stand for VP Higher Education, on a platform of supporting student campaigning and organising—particularly around fighting for free education. She related that although NUS now supports free education on paper, the leadership ‘don’t actually really support it and are not committed to making it happen’.
For Hattie, free education includes the abolition of tuition fees (for everyone, including international students and postgrads), but it is much more than that. She explained the free education also included ‘the implementation of living grants, instead of loans that you have to pay back’ and a different kind of curriculum, one that is more liberated, and included more feminist, queer, disabled, and black content.
But how is this to be achieved? Hattie explained how we need to ‘build a mass movement, with activist groups on every campus, stronger links with workers involved in a similar struggle against neoliberalism within wider society’. Furthermore, this movement for free education must be embedded within wider society. We could learn from the examples of Germany and Chile in which free education has recently been won through long-term campaigns, ‘characterised by a lot of action, particularly that which was disruptive and on the streets – mass walk-outs, demonstrations, and occupations – but also the building of wider public support’.
If free education was the long-term goal, what could be changed in the 12 months Hattie would have as VP Higher Education? Her priority would be ‘changing the direction and culture of NUS and its role and relationship with student activists’ away from the ‘current, bureaucratic, top-down approach’. Instead, she would like to see ‘strong, local activist groups on most campuses across the UK, working autonomously to build the free education movement’ – but with a national network supporting them with advice and resources, ‘acting as an amplifier for the issues that were being fought for on their campus’.
Additionally, she mentioned that with the election coming up, it will be incredibly important to have a ‘strong, militant student movement’ ready to take action with demonstrations and mass mobilisations ‘to show that any rise in tuition fees will be met with severe opposition’.
How would this be different than the events of 2010, when student opposition was ignored by the government, and the coalition went ahead and trebled tuition fees? Hattie believed that the very nature of the struggle had changed: ‘The difference between then and now is that we’re fighting for a positive change – it’s not just against something, we’re fighting for free education.’ And with the discourse on free education having been won over the past year, Hattie believes there is real cause for hope: ‘We know this is going to take a long time, it’s not going to be won overnight, but I think students are prepared for that as well.’
While serving as Education Officer at Birmingham University, Hattie maintained her involvement in the grassroots group Birmingham Defend Education – and she believes that sets her apart from the other candidates and would shape the way she approached the role. While most of the other candidates had been involved mainly as sabbatical officers, trained by NUS to think of themselves as ‘leaders, special and set apart from ordinary students’, Hattie still saw her job as ‘primarily to facilitate what students were campaigning for and not just cut myself off from the movement’. This approach would be continued if she is elected to NUS, she said: ‘As an NUS sabbatical officer, I wouldn’t want to be cut off from the movement – I want to be there on the ground, taking part in demonstrations, taking part in occupations, going to students’ court cases – all these things sabbatical officers and NUS officers far too often see themselves as above.’
Hattie has been involved as one of the members of the national executive of National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). She said her involvement in NCAFC and other groups made up of local student activists would continue if elected: ‘I’d still want to be involved in NCAFC, I’d still want to be involved in local student activist groups, I’d want to talk to them about what’s going on and what they think I should be doing, what different people’s ideas were about issues that were coming up and what my priority should be and what my role should be’.
Finally, I asked Hattie what issues she would emphasise apart from free education. She emphasised greater democracy by students and universities staff over the education and the way courses are run. She would also work against initiatives such as the monitoring of international students (such as a scheme to monitor Muslim students in the UK), which she saw as treating international students as ‘cash cows yet also as criminals at the same time’. Finally, she’d fight things that contribute to the marketisation of education. These include things like the National Student Survey (NSS), which she argued is ‘used to pit institutions against each other and berate lecturers’ and would want to replace with more meaningful feedback. She would also oppose the proposed introduction of an American style grade point average system, which ‘creates more stress for students as they’re forced to compete with each other even more and employers are able to even more easily differentiate between people as well’.