“When I grow up, I want to be Liam Burns,” Sir Alan Langlands once quipped shortly after the president of the National Union of Students had delivered a conference speech.
But the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s admiration for Mr Burns perhaps illustrates a problem gnawing away from within a divided student movement.
Has today’s NUS leadership become too respectable, as some representatives believe? Is it still willing to challenge the establishment and to campaign on core issues of tuition fees and cuts?
On one side are those militant Marxists and far Left agitators who want the NUS to reconnect with its radical roots. On the other are the more moderate voices urging the NUS to move away from the fees debate and to campaign on bursaries and grants for students, as well as for more support for local clubs and societies.
So which direction will the NUS take when the affable Mr Burns steps down?
About 1,500 delegates will head to Sheffield between 8-10 April to decide who should lead the movement in the era of £9,000 tuition fees and growing unease about the affordability of postgraduate education.
The field for this year’s election for president is refreshingly diverse, politically and personally, even by the standards of an organisation that prides itself on its diversity.
Meet the contenders
One candidate would be the first student president to have attended a further education college rather than a university, another the first to come from the lesbian and gay community and the third an even rarer species in an NUS election - a Tory candidate.
The front-runner is Toni Pearce, currently vice-president for further education, who has already secured support from a large part of the Labour students organisation and the backing of the outgoing president.
However, Ms Pearce did not attend university, having studied A levels at Cornwall College before becoming president of its students’ union and holding several posts at national level.
So is the 22-year-old daunted by the prospect of debating with ministers and vice-chancellors on university policy? Not at all, she insisted. “Policy is an area I really enjoy and further education policy is almost [as], if not more, complex than higher education,” she said.
“If you look at [the NUS] leadership, plenty feel able to speak about the need for apprenticeships without having done one themselves.”
Ms Pearce pointed out that more than half of NUS members come from further education, while the collective nature of the NUS leadership allows different voices and experiences to be heard.
Some believe the race’s most left-wing candidate, Vicki Baars, a biomedical sciences graduate from Leeds Metropolitan University, could secure a surprise victory. Not a Labour Party member, she described herself as “pretty left-wing” and “socialist” and keen to get more students involved in their unions.
The 25-year-old, who joined the NUS through lesbian and gay activism, made headlines last year for circulating song sheets for November’s national student demonstration that included the chant “Build a bonfire…put the Tories on top”.
Demanding “free education to all”, Ms Baars is likely to gain support from the hard Left, and her popularity as vice-president for union development could secure her wider support from higher education representatives unsure about Ms Pearce.
The outsider is Peter Smallwood, 23, a politics graduate from Brunel University, who is running on the unashamedly Tory slogan “Back to Basics”.
He has stated that the current leadership is too dominated by “politicos”, is not representative of the union’s 7 million members and is not supportive enough of clubs and societies that make a difference to campus life.
However, several representatives have been impressed by his record as a sabbatical officer at Brunel, so perhaps a Tory victor is not totally fanciful. A third of all students voted Conservative in the 2010 general election, he pointed out.
But what about that slogan, inspired by John Major’s disastrous comeback campaign in 1993?
“Well, Major was the underdog. He also won his first election, though he got hammered second time round - I’d take that.”
Runners and Riders: The Presidential Hopefuls
Past roles include: NUS vice-president (further education) 2011-13, NUS deputy national president 2011-13, Cornwall College students’ union president 2009-11.
Manifesto quote: “The transformative power of education can’t be boiled down to a fight about fees…We need to start looking at the real barriers to education.”
Past roles include: Chair of Leeds Metropolitan University Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Society 2007-08; NUS LGBT officer (women’s place) 2010-12; NUS vice-president for union development 2012-13.
Manifesto quote: “Wherever the power-players and decision-makers are, we will be too, letting our voices be known.”
Past roles include: Students’ trustee (Union of Brunel Students) 2011-12, student assembly member (Union of Brunel Students) 2010-12, vice-president academic representation (Union of Brunel Students).
Manifesto quote: “I’m fed up of us fighting ourselves, excluding people we don’t think we agree with and forgetting that the vast amount of members are simply not engaged.”