The National Union of Students’ new vice-president for higher education has vowed to put improving access to postgraduate education at the heart of her term of office.
Megan Dunn, who was elected at the NUS conference in Liverpool last week to take over from Rachel Wenstone in the key post, said too often postgraduate study was viewed as a “middle-class playground”. In her speech to conference on 9 April, Ms Dunn said she wanted to “smash through the layer of privilege that dominates postgraduate study”.
Ms Dunn, president of Aberdeen University Students’ Association, later told Times Higher Education that she was keen to look at new ways to allow students from poorer families into further study without their incurring large bank debts. “When the choice faced by students is to take out commercial debt, we are not giving them fair access to postgraduate study,” said Ms Dunn.
Ms Dunn’s focus on postgraduate education in her election speech is likely to hearten those within the sector who have often complained that the needs of the UK’s 535,000 or so postgraduates are overlooked by the NUS, which represents about 7 million students.
Manchester-raised Ms Dunn, 23, who took a degree in politics and international relations at Aberdeen, is likely to be a leading voice for higher education students in the run-up to next May’s general election.
Ms Dunn, who paid fees of about £1,800 a year as an English student in Scotland, has called on whichever party is elected to “take a wrecking ball” to the current system of £9,000 annual tuition fees, saying university education should be “democratic, diverse and debt-free”.
The stance was backed by the NUS, which voted to campaign for free education, although its re-elected president Toni Pearce – who polled twice as many votes as her opponents combined – called for a graduate tax that would remove the £9,000 sticker price for university courses.
That apparently contradictory stance may lead to tensions within the organisation ahead of the election, as might the extent to which the NUS will target Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg over his broken promise to oppose higher tuition fees.
Delegates voted to campaign against Mr Clegg and any MP who broke the NUS pledge “by publicly highlighting their broken promise”.
However, Ms Dunn is more reluctant to mount a concerted campaign to oust Mr Clegg from his Sheffield Hallam seat – an aim publicly backed by former NUS leaders.
While insisting that it would be a “dangerous precedent” to let politicians off the hook, she believed the NUS should “not simply aim to take politicians out”. “We will be working with the local student union and finding out what action they want to take and work together to get the best outcome,” Ms Dunn said.
That view echoes the sentiments of Ms Pearce, who said the NUS “should not have a Tarantino-style revenge campaign” against the 28 Lib Dem MPs who had broken their promises over fees.
Mr Clegg and Co. might be relieved that Ms Dunn beat her election rival Tom Flynn, vice-president (education) at University of Bristol Students’ Union, by 300 votes to 241, as he had warned the Lib Dem leader: “We are coming for you.”
Underdog with bite: NUS outsider’s surprise election victory
Those who complain that the National Union of Students’ leadership is dominated by wannabe Labour MPs will be heartened by the election of Piers Telemacque.
In the shock result of the NUS annual conference, the president of Bradford College’s students’ union was picked as vice-president for society and citizenship, beating two candidates – Hugh Murdoch and Skye Yarlett – both of whom had far larger and more visible campaigns.
Lacking the teams of supporters to hand out leaflets employed by his rivals, Mr Telemacque instead relied on an electrifying hustings address, partially given in rhyming verse, to win over delegates in Liverpool.
He even broke the NUS’ rule on swearing on the conference platform – once – to express his anger about the impact of cuts on education in the past few years.
“Now the young and poor are being hardest hit – so do you know what I say? Eff this shit,” he remarked, winning cheers and applause from the floor.
Mr Telemacque, who joined Bradford College after being expelled from school, also used poetic verse to bash bankers and then politicians who called for cuts to deal with financial austerity.
In fact, austerity was “due to the need for greed by a very few indeed, who plant the seed that leads people like us to blame each other for the mess we did not create”.
After the speech, the underdog candidate – backed by the socialist Student Broad Left movement, not by the mainstream Labour Students group – romped home to victory in the vote on 9 April, winning 383 votes – more than his two opponents combined.
Indeed, his tally was just 71 votes fewer than the support garnered by Toni Pearce, who was easily re-elected NUS president with a total of 454 votes, way ahead of her nearest rival, NUS black students officer Aaron Kiely with 150 votes.
In her keynote address before the election, Ms Pearce called for a “new deal for the next generation” and also criticised the actions of police at recent campus occupations.
Her call was later echoed by a resolution that the NUS would campaign for laws that police cannot enter campuses without permission from both the university and the students’ union.