NUS elects Blairite chief

April 5, 1996

NUS president elect Douglas Trainer has his sights fixed firmly on a new future where students contribute to their education and where negotiation rather than confrontation is the norm.

Mr Trainer's election victory, at last week's annual conference in Blackpool, marked a sea change in NUS policy, principally the rejection of the union's 16-year-old policy of returning to a full government-funded grants system.

The decision, echoing the Labour party's ditching of clause four last year, paves the way for the NUS to support any system of income-contingent graduate taxation which the Conservatives or a future Labour government decide to introduce.

Mr Trainer, a member of Labour Students and a supporter of Tony Blair's New Labour policies, embodies the views of a new breed of students who reject longstanding notions that education should be completely free. Currently president of NUS Scotland, he is anxious to build upon the ground which current national president Jim Murphy has won in his two years in the post. Both presidents attended Strathclyde University.

Mr Trainer said: "Jim has done a tremendous job in leading the funding debate but there is still a great deal of work to do. The signal coming from the NUS membership is that we have got to be more realistic."

The mood for reform has only swept the NUS in recent months. Last May, delegates at an extraordinary conference in Derby defeated Mr Murphy's attempt to abandon the union's commitment to full grants.

But last week's annual conference revealed just how much the NUS had changed. The reformers were in a clear majority, leaving the left-wingers fuming over what they described as betrayal by the right.

Mr Trainer, a Labour party member for the past seven years, said: "Today's students are experiencing unprecedented levels of hardship and the real betrayal would be if we continued with fruitless occupations and protests instead of trying to find new and real answers. What I want to see, and what is rapidly taking shape, is a coalition between the NUS, trade unions, vice chancellors and principals, all working on a common agenda in support of higher and further education."

Mr Trainer rejects claims by leftwing opponents that the NUS has been redesigned merely to serve as a puppet of Tony Blair's new-look Labour party. He remains committed to students, promising widespread consultation with individual university and college unions.

He said: "I could well be the first NUS president in almost 20 years to be working under a Labour government. We will be looking for a lot. An income-contingent graduate tax is not for us to decide, but we will want things in return."

Mr Trainer said that the NUS wants to see more investment in education, particularly to help non-traditional learners such as mature students, part-timers, the disabled and ethnic minorities as well as more investment in non-traditional methods of study such as distance learning.

The NUS is also particularly aware of the need to provide increased support for students in the FE sector who, it was apparent at conference, feel they have been ignored in the past by the NUS.

No one, least of all Mr Trainer, believes that these reforms are going to be easy, particularly when he faces opposition from those on the left who still hold positions on the union's National Executive Committee.

"I want to be seen as a president leading from the front," he said. "In the past there has been too much division in the NUS and the NEC and I want to lead a team. It's a question of building consensus."

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