Megan Dunn has been elected president of the National Union of Students, and has promised to ensure that the organisation “finally delivers” on its values.
The 24-year-old, who has spent the last year as vice-president for higher education, defeated “revolutionary socialist” Beth Redmond at the NUS annual conference by 413 votes to 202. She will succeed Toni Pearce later this year.
Ms Dunn, a former president of Aberdeen University Students’ Association, stood as an independent but was expected to gain the support of the powerful Labour Students group.
Addressing the conference in Liverpool on 22 April, Ms Dunn said that she would fight for free higher education and promised action against what she described as a cost of living crisis facing students.
Whatever government is in power after next month’s election, it “won’t be easy”, she said, so “we have to be ready to stand up alongside each other and say enough is enough”.
But she argued that action could not only be taken in the streets. It also needed to happen in union meetings, in university boardrooms and in parliament, she said.
“Now is not the time for talking some more but time to decide what we are going to do about it,” Ms Dunn said. “We will all be standing outside in the cold talking about the issues, debating our values, all while the government carries on cutting.”
To achieve change, the NUS has to change, Ms Dunn argued. She said she wanted to put greater emphasis on supporting campus unions, and on transforming the national movement to support the work that they do.
The work of sports clubs on campus could be “just as empowering” as a protest occupation, she said.
She added: “This stage, this conference, this national union has to stop being a battleground and start being our frontline…Sometimes making change involves shouting from the rooftops but sometimes we need to just get down off our soapboxes and do the work.”
This contrasted with the approach of Ms Redmond, who was backed by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
Ms Redmond, 22, voiced her support for occupation movements at universities around the country, and said she wanted an NUS that fought for an end to austerity rather than one that “sleepwalks while attacks are raining down”. She accused the NUS of “sabotaging” a march for free education held last year.
Leon French, a Conservative Party member and music student at the University of Hull, pulled out of the contest prior to the election, claiming that the NUS was “pretty much a front” for the Labour movement.
He said that the “Liar Liar” advertising campaign aimed at unseating 38 MPs who broke a pledge made before the last election to oppose tuition fee rises demonstrated that there was “no point” trying to win votes when “they’ve already decided”. Nearly all of the MPs who were targeted were Liberal Democrats.
Also at the conference, Sorana Vieru, currently the postgraduate education officer at the University of Bristol Students’ Union, was elected NUS vice-president for higher education.
She defeated Labour-backed Poppy Wilkinson, the president of the University of Birmingham’s Guild of Students, and Hattie Craig, a veteran of three campus occupations at Birmingham.
Ms Vieru, a former Birmingham student herself, had urged delegates to elect a Romanian immigrant “just to wind up Nigel Farage”. But she also made support for “marginalised” groups such as women and ethnic minorities a centrepiece of her pitch.
Shelly Asquith, president of University of the Arts London Students’ Union, was elected vice-president for welfare, defeating Cat Turhan, president of Warwick Students’ Union.
Motions were passed to condemn the record of the coalition government, to support free education and abolition of student debt and to call for postgraduate loans to be available to students of all ages, not just under-30s as planned.