Rosamund McCarthy: Informal protest is fine but only hard campaigning work brings real change

The NUS campaign to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance could serve as a model to other campaigning third sector organisations, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

Tomorrow, the Lords will debate scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance - a scheme that helps the poorest to stay in education. The debate comes after the House of Commons voted to increase university fees to a maximum of £9,000.

The National Union of Students, recent winner of a Third Sector Excellence Award, has been at the centre of the fight to resist both changes, in a campaign that has dominated the headlines since before the election and could serve as a model to other campaigning third sector organisations.

The NUS inspired 50,000 students to demonstrate in one of the most significant marches since the Iraq war, and radicalised a new generation that organised protests by tweets, twibbons and hashtags. Media coverage was inevitably skewed by the police tactic of kettling peaceful protesters, as well as by the violence of a minority.

Although the proposal to raise fees in England was passed in parliament, the NUS - which I have advised on other matters, such as governance and charity law - ran a textbook campaign and achieved one stunning success: no rise in fees for Welsh-domiciled students. Nonetheless, it has been attacked by both right and left. At one end it has been accused of inciting violence, and at the other of being too cautious about supporting informal grass-roots protesters.

As a campaigner, I am often seduced by the impromptu protest - heart first, head later. But without a focused strategy and hard graft, many campaigns simply peter out. In order to run a successful campaign, you not only need to know what you are against, but also what you are for - and, preferably, how much it costs. Investing in detailed policy work paid dividends because the NUS devised a model, economically tested, for a modified graduate tax. The model is now supported by the Labour Party and was also supported for six weeks by the business secretary, Vince Cable - until he toed the Conservative Party line.

The NUS also created the brilliant Vote for Students campaign: thanks to the hard work of student unions before the election, it led to Liberal Democrats signing a pledge not to raise fees. They would not have signed a pledge to an informal collective using the 'solidarity' hashtag on Twitter. It was the heavy lifting of the NUS's respected policy work that persuaded the Liberal Democrats to sign. Informal protests are vital, but it was the devastating leverage of the written pledge that ultimately led to a major rebellion, split the Liberal Democrats and undermined the coalition.

The NUS fight continues against the abolition of the EMA, which is a lifeline for many young people who want to complete their further education. The campaign, supported by trade unions and students, deserves both organised and spontaneous support.

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in the law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

She writes in a personal capacity

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