Students are spreading a model of departmental organising in universities across the UK loosely based on Quebec student union structures. The following is a Q&A between Matthew Brett and an organiser from a university in the North of the UK. The interviewer is working with others to build a directly democratic alternative to the National Union of Students. Matthew is actively encouraging departmental organising in the UK and the development of an alternative to the NUS. He was an organiser at Concordia University in Québec leading up to the 2012 general student strike. The Q&A was conducted online on 8 May, 2013.
Q. You have had assemblies in the Politics and the Development department at SOAS, with more departments likely to adopt the model next academic year. Who is responsible for organising the assemblies? (The practical side of making them happen.)
Matt: The core of departmental organising happens with a departmental mob squad or mobilization squad. My hat goes off to the mob squads at SOAS. They’re really just a core group of students in their department who do all of the planning and organising. This is the vital, nitty-gritty stuff: room bookings, making class visits, printing and distributing flyers, drafting an agenda, getting speakers, snacks a facilitator and so on. To me, the key is that everyone in the departments is well-aware that an assembly is happening. If you’re going to make a serious decision on behalf of a student-body in a department, everybody had better at least received the invite.
Q. What is there relationship with the SAOS union?
Matt: There is currently no relationship between the departmental assemblies and the central student union. Co-presidents in the student union have been supportive of the process, but they are not playing an active role. I prefer it that way. Assemblies should evolve organically from within the departments rather than top-down from the union executive. That said, the union can play a vital role by providing financing for departments, sharing its communications resources and so on. But the autonomy of departmental associations should be respected. This was critical in Québec during the strike. Departments were the highest sovereign body during the strike, even over the student union.
Q. How are the different assemblies co-ordinated?
Matt: There is currently no coordination across departments at SOAS. During the student strike in Québec, departments coordinated fairly closely. For example, several departments may put forward a motion about holding a day of action or coordinating a picket line. We also had inter-departmental meetings at the height of the strike. This was a great space where representatives from active departments came together to coordinate actions. It gave us a good sense of what other departments were dealing with. Most departments had active facebook pages and mailing lists where people talked about issues online. Some still maintain excellent blogs.
Q. How well are the assemblies doing so far?
Matt: I would say the Development assemblies at SOAS are going very well. They’ve had two general assemblies so far. The Politics department also held a successful assembly and plan on holding more. The organisers have been amazing. I imagine more departments will begin to adopt the assembly model next academic year.
Q. What is the vibe regarding the announced ULU closure? Are assemblies a possible way of filling the gap?
Matt: The vibe is mixed regarding ULU closure. People are obviously pissed off that it’s closing, particularly the abrupt way management went about it. There will be active opposition from students at SOAS, no question. That said, many also recognise some of the weaknesses of ULU, weaknesses which ULU executives themselves have been addressing with internal reforms, including more localised general assemblies. It’s clear that people see the potential implosion of ULU as a very serious loss. But it’s also clear that people see it as an opportunity to build something new.
The upcoming 8 June NCAFC extraordinary conference is going to be really important in this respect. No question people have their valid reservations about NCAFC, but there is no question that this is going to be a vital conference. Register and go. I only hope they decide to make the development of an alternative to the NUS an open process. This should include far more players than NCAFC themselves.
I really hope students start building an alternative to the NUS. The NUS is a joke. I don’t even need to go into the details. Students need a real alternative that will take free education seriously. You need real struggle to have any victories. I think departmental organising is critical when it comes to an alternative. Departments are more directly democratic, smaller and reflective of specific problems and goals. Most importantly for me, departments are the best level to implement a student strike. You can really shut your university for a sustained period of time with a strike. And if you can coordinate across universities, you can put huge pressure capital and the state. They have to listen, because you’re in control. I say this from first-hand experience. Just look to Québec. They really disrupted the system.
There are some dangers too. There is clearly a desire to resist the possibility of a London-based NUS regional union. I’m sure NUS are hovering around ULU like vultures. They will corrupt the last bastion of militancy if they get their careerist hands on ULU, no question. More promising though is the possibility that a more militant alternative to the NUS will emerge. It’s an exciting prospect – a necessary one if you look at the state of things. It’s clear to me: if a fighting alternative to the NUS isn’t created, the NUS will step in and fill the void.
This article was first published on Syndicalist Students (https://syndicaliststudents.wordpress.com/). Visit Organise2013 for useful resources on departmental organizing (http://organise2013.wordpress.com/).