Go home and write to your MP

The October 29 student demonstration against the further marketisation of higher education was uninspired and timid. Ben Lewis and Dave Isaacson report

Sunday October 29 saw around 4,000 students march in London against proposals which would lead to the further marketisation of higher education by allowing universities to set their own price for the different courses they offer.

However, it is a sad indictment of the current state of student politics that a demonstration that should have aimed to mobilise and inspire students restricted itself to the narrow and politically myopic demand of 'Keep the cap' on course fees.

Indeed, when a demonstration is called around such minimal demands, it is not surprising that it mobilised such small numbers and did little to lift political consciousness. Not that Socialist Worker this week could raise even a hint of criticism of the demonstration and its organisers.

For many who were demonstrating for the very first time it was more of a fun event - a nice day out in London - than a militant proclamation of what we really need: the scrapping of fees, free education and a living grant.

The main reason for this lack of ambition is the sheer spinelessness of the National Union of Students bureaucracy and its collection of government wannabes, who seek to boost their profiles claiming to be angry on behalf of students, whilst not saying anything too radical that might undermine their future career prospects. As a result Sunday's demonstration could not be said to be dominated politically by the left. Labour Students marched happily alongside members of Conservative Future. One Tory even remarked that she had not been on a demonstration since the last Countryside Alliance protest.

True, a section of the left led a rather pointless sit-down which involved around 200, as the demonstration entered Trafalgar Square. They were, however, isolated: stewards encouraged everyone else to walk past them. Earlier on an anarchist was dragged away from the demonstration by the police, apparently with the full agreement of the same stewards. The young comrade was eventually released following protests from other demonstrators.

The Trafalgar Square rally was more like a gimmicky opening ceremony to a sporting event, with 3,000 balloons being let off (a symbol of the £3,000 cap). Instead of setting out a strategy to win real improvements, platform speakers contented themselves with forlorn calls for token protests. In the words of Wes Streeting, NUS vice-president for education, we should all "go home and write to your MP", not forgetting to "lobby your vice-chancellor".

Many of the speeches at Trafalgar Square were pre-recorded contributions from Labour MPs, which, despite their uninspiring content, revealed that this issue is by no means a fringe one: the MPs in question - John Cruddas, Lynne Jones and Ian Gibson - are not normally considered to be on the left. The messages of support that were conveyed in person also failed to offer any political insight or formulate demands around which we could unite - TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, for example, did little more than wish us "every possible success". Cheers, Brendan!

NUS president Gemma Tumelty's speech was predictably bland. There was anger in her voice, but she failed to go beyond platitudes and uncontroversial pledges. She exhorted us to "keep up the pressure" not to allow the cap to be lifted and mobilise our members to "take action". What action she has in mind was not spelled out. She insisted that "tomorrow the fight continues", but it seems more likely that by the next day she was back in the NUS office negotiating student discounts, etc.

Gemma did say: "Today you witness our return to the fight for free education." Presumably she believes in achieving that aim by tiny, incremental steps - the demonstration was, after all, focused on a plea not to increase fees further rather than abolish them altogether.

In comparison to what the NUS bureaucracy and the Labour MPs had to offer, Paul Mackney, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, gave by far the best speech of the day, drawing on experience from previous student struggles. In a subtle (or was it unintentional?) critique of the current NUS incumbents, he noted that so many of today's government ministers had previously been prominent leaders of the student movement. He forcefully pointed out that when Jack Straw was NUS president he "railed against students having to choose between buying a new book or a meal". But "Now what is he doing?"

Mackney linked the question of fees with the Iraq war, and attacked Straw once again for creating a "climate of muslim-bashing". He argued that university entrance should be based on the "ability to study", not "what you can pay - or what you wear" (a reference to a recent move at Imperial College to ban the niqab, which the UCU has strongly opposed). He also put across his union's opposition to "fees in general" and attempted to link up this opposition to the struggle to get British troops out of Iraq.

It is obvious that the kind of fighting leadership students need is sorely lacking. Most of all, they need a coherent programme around which to unite, not platitudes from the NUS bureaucracy. To this end Communist Students are calling for the principle of need to be put at the very centre of our demands - that means an end to fees, and grants of at least £300 per week; students should not be forced into poorly paid part-time jobs.

Students must have the time and ability not just to engage in formal study, but to educate themselves in the complete sense - formulating their ideas through social interaction and informal debate in what is a crucial formative period in becoming a rounded human being.