STUDENTS. Last May the National Union of Students called an extraordinary conference to debate student funding. It promised to be a watershed event, marking a radical change in NUS policies. It turned out to be a bitter defeat for the leadership of the NUS.
Writing in The THES the week before, NUS president Jim Murphy attempted to fan the winds of change: "It seems certain that the conference will be faced with a clear choice between maintaining our policy founded on the misconceptions of the 1979 educational world or combining a new package of policies which ensure that all who benefit contribute to some extent."
After an acrimonious meeting in which Mr Murphy was accused of sacrificing students to the needs of New Labour, the NUS retained its 1979 position. It wants a return to pre-1979 levels of funding for education; the reintroduction of housing benefit and income support; an end to parental contribution; and increased institutional funding.
The Derby vote did not mean the end of debate. The conference voted for the NUS review of student finance to continue. This autumn the NUS launched five big research projects to establish the extent of student povery - and what can be done about it.
Student union presidents throughout the country have also carried on the debate. In October, an independent group of more than 100 student union officers, called "New Solutions", launched a consultation exercise. "Should the taxpayer be fully responsible for 100 per cent of the funding of tuition costs?" they asked. The answer is not out yet. Whether there has been a shift in student thinking on these issues will only really become clear at the NUS's next conference in March.
What is clear is that the NUS does not support Government plans to introduce privatised loans. Already unhappy at mistakes by the Student Loans Company, which delayed the payment of thousands of loans earlier this year, Mr Murphy warned last month that students are likely to boycott any privatised scheme.
While the student funding debate raged on, student life did not get any easier. In June, research from the University of Central England found that more than half of 1,139 full-time students polled believed their academic performance was suffering due to financial problems. More than 92 per cent called for reform of the higher education funding system. The 1995 NUS survey Value for Money found that more than 30 per cent of students work in term-time to supplement their income.
Mature students faced a bleak time, particularly as there was no reprieve on the decision to abolish special allowances for mature students in the 1994 Budget.
But overseas students continued to enrol. In June, a report from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals revealed that overseas students generate Pounds 1 billion for the national economy, including Pounds 310 million in fees paid directly to universities.