Speaking at the annual conference of the National Union of Students in Sheffield, Liam Burns also emphasised the need for the NUS to be a campaigning union that faced up to the particular challenges faced by students.
Significantly, he argued against organising another national demonstration, saying “we organised a demo [last] year, and it failed to have any impact whatsoever”. He cited the public’s lack of sympathy for extra spending on universities in the current economic climate and the cost of demonstrating as his reasons.
Instead, Mr Burns said that the NUS should develop a policy and campaigning strategy that makes the case to the public of “the value of education.”
Talking about NUS participation in a report called Pound in Your Pocket, which has researched the way that financial issues affect student’s lives, he said that students working long hours for low pay during their studies was a “scandal that has to be tackled”.
He suggested that the financial difficulties students were facing while studying was currently a bigger issue for the NUS than tuition fees, but they would “always come back” to the topic of fees.
Meanwhile, he also spoke about the issue of gender equality, which is high on the agenda at the conference due to a vote on whether to bring in policies that will improve representation for women in students’ unions.
Mr Burns, who steps down as president this year, said problems like male majorities in student union sabbatical positions were “unacceptable”. The conference also applauded the success of the recent NUS report on “lad culture” in universities and Mr Burns said “it is about time we called out sexual harassment dressed up as ‘banter’”.
He also argued that job prospects and work were some of the most pressing student issues. “Work is central to everybody’s lives, we need a vision for work,” he said.
Today the NUS has published a report commissioned from the New Economics Foundation, which Mr Burns described as “startling” for the grim picture it painted of today’s students’ long-term employment outlook.
“While previous generations may have looked on the job market as a land of opportunity, this generation looks on it as an abyss,” he said.
He concluded his speech by saying that the NUS should work to practise “good politics” that was positive and pragmatic and not about “abstract arguments”.