Left in power or left in the lurch?

March 27, 1998

Harriet Swain looks at the candidates vying to be president at next week's NUS conference

This year's National Union of Students annual conference, which starts on Monday, is a historic occasion.

It is the first time in 19 years that the National Union of Students has held its conference under a Labour government and the first time ever that Labour has led the NUS and the government at the same time.

It is also likely to be the last time students meet free of tuition fee charges. The conference will offer the student body its first opportunity to air opinion on NUS reaction to the proposed funding changes and to amend policy in the light of these changes.

It will also see the election of a new president.


Eric Brooke is an independent candidate who claims to stand in the cause of unity, saying the NUS has become too factional. A former chef and counsellor, now aged , he graduated as a mature student in computer science from the University of Hertfordshire, where he is student union president.

He was chair of Stadia (Student Activities and Development in Action) last year.

Kate Buckell, president of the Campaign for Free Education and a member of the NUS national executive, is standing on the Unity Slate, an assembly of far-left groupings.

A member of the Marxist organisation Workers Liberty, she wants the government to tax the rich to pay for education and criticises the present NUS leadership for "cosying up to Blair and the government when they are attacking us".

Aged 24, she is a history graduate of Lancaster University.

Carolyne Culver, 24, is standing as a Broad Left candidate and wants state-funded education for everyone in further and higher education.

She helped to secure the backing of Blur lead singer Damon Albarn for a lobby of Parliament last month and her candidacy is supported by Labour MP Ken Livingstone. She has a BA and MA in history from Sussex University.

Andrew Pakes, 24, is the Labour Students candidate and so strongly tipped to win.

He aims to continue the NUS's existing campaign against fees, while conceding that students need to make some contribution to living costs. He wants to rejuvenate NUS liberation campaigns, starting with changes to the age of consent.

Now the union's national treasurer, chair of student services and convenor of the NUS environment campaign, he took an undergraduate degree in politics and a postgraduate degree in environmental management at Hull.

If elected, he says he will be the first green president of NUS as well as only the second openly gay president.

Tom Tomney, campaigns manager at Calderdale College in Halifax, is something of a wild card. He wants education to be free for everyone irrespective of age and cites lengthy experience of the trade union and Labour movements.


THERE is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of groupings which make up the NUS. Here is a selection:

United for Free Education: A rare collaboration between far left groupings, bringing together the Campaign for Free Education, Stop the Fees Campaign and the Socialist Worker Student Society.

Campaign for Free Education: Campaigns against introducing tuition fees and in favour of full student grants for all students over 16. Incorporates factions formerly known as Socialist Organiser and Left Unity.

Stop the Fees Campaign: Believes much the same as the CFE but is run by Socialist Worker Students.

Save Free Education: Again same ideas, different leaders. This time run by the Socialist Party, once known as Militant. Supports United for Free Education but is not a member.

Socialist Worker Student Society: Claims 5,000 members. Wants militant action against tuition fees and abolition of grants, including national occupations.

Broad Left: Far left organisation but willing to take on board most people from Marxists to Liberal Democrats and generally anyone who disagrees with the present Labour-dominated NUS leadership. Wants free education but stresses that students should also be worried about things like racism, Third-World debt, banning blood sports and nuclear disarmament.

Independents: Idealistic and/or egotistical individuals not affiliated to any particular grouping. Includes a group formally known as Real Solutions, which campaigned for keeping the status quo in terms of maintenance grants and no fees and also pushed issues of access. Some of these people have joined the Broad Left. But independents have also absorbed members of the group New Solutions, responsible for the ground-breaking policy by which NUS agreed to give up fighting for full maintenance grants.

Labour Students: Claims 6,000 members and celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Has dominated the National Union of Students since the early 1980s. The last three NUS presidents, all Labour Students, have become MPs.

Opposed in principle to charging tuition fees but supports the government's line on maintenance.

Liberal Democrat Youth and Students: Claims 5,000 members of whom well over half are students. Benefiting from Labour students links with a government introducing tuition fees, which it opposes. On maintenance, it supports the idea of a learning account to replace the current grant and loan system.

Conservative Students: Claims 4,500 members. It supports tuition fees, but wants the maintenance grant restored, essentially the proposals contained in Sir Ron Dearing's original report.

Union of Jewish Students: Highly organised grouping that claims 7,000 members and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Aims to protect the rights of Jewish students and promote Judaism to non-Jews.

Young European Movement: Claims about 2,000 members, most of whom are students. Higher profile this year than ever before because of the UK presidency, it is planning future campaigns with the NUS on European issues.

Students for Environmental Action: Less political and more student-based than the Greens, it will be thrilled that the environment has been made a priority conference motion this year.


THE FOUR topics for discussion are: disabled students, the environment, education policy and student development.

The NUS executive is likely to have a hard time in the environment debate over its support of a McDonald's discount card. Many student unions are boycotting McDonald's, claiming it has exploitative employment policies and contributes to deforestation.

It is also likely to face an onslaught from members unhappy with the way it has campaigned over tuition fees and abolition of maintenance grants, although, unusually for an NUS conference, there is no motion of no confidence this year in the president, Douglas Trainer.

Student development is unlikely to be a controversial topic. It will involve students talking about all the extra skills they should be developing at university in preparation for the outside world. Sport is also expected to feature highly.

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