NUS left forces a U-turn on grants

April 4, 2003

The National Union of Students this week lurched to the left with a return to its historic support for universal grants paid for through progressive taxation.

Delegates to the NUS annual conference in Blackpool forced the national executive to abandon its seven-year-old policy of supporting only means-tested grants targeted at the poorest students and loans.

Conference, radicalised not least by the prospect of top-up fees and war in Iraq, also came within three votes of inflicting a historic defeat on incumbent Labour Student president Mandy Telford in favour of socialist candidate Kat Fletcher. No NUS president has ever failed to win a second term. Ms Telford won by 429 votes to 426.

Delegates at the Blackpool conference passed a socialist-sponsored amendment to the executive's funding policy motion. The amendment said that the NUS would "campaign for a universal, non-means-tested maintenance grant to be available to every student.

"Those who ask whether the children of the rich (for example, Prince Harry) should be entitled to a full grant are missing the point. The rich should pay for everyone's education through a system of progressive taxation."

The amendment was backed by Will Straw, president of the Oxford University student union and son of foreign secretary Jack Straw. He said that means-testing did not work, as one in five students whose parents should make a contribution to their living costs received nothing.

He said: "If you are worried about people like me or Prince Harry getting a grant when we don't need one, tax our parents - make them pay."

The national executive's Steve Bloomfield argued that he was "middle class and didn't need a grant" and said that the union's policy should be about targeting support, to those who need it most.

This week's conference has undone the NUS's controversial funding policy agreed at the 1996 conference. At the time, a leadership of new Labour students, typified by Jim Murphy - now Labour MP for Eastwood - who was president from 1994 to 1996, argued that a call for universal full grants was a lost cause. Mr Murphy and Labour Students persuaded the 1996 conference that a more pragmatic approach would win them greater influence.

The successful amendment this week described this policy as "wrong, both tactically and strategically". "The national union should be demanding as much as possible in order to win the maximum concessions from the government," the amendment said.

The motion was forwarded by Ms Fletcher, NUS women's officer, who stood against Ms Telford on the Campaign for Free Education slate backed by the Socialist Workers Party and the Student Broad Left.

Ms Fletcher, in her election address, said: "In 1997, the Labour government introduced fees and took away the grant, and NUS helped them to do it.

History is repeating itself - the day the white paper came out and introduced top-up fees, Charles Clarke praised our president."

Ms Fletcher said that the newly agreed campaign for universal grants was something only she could fight for, as Ms Telford was "cowering behind the coat-tails of Tony Blair".

But Ms Telford will now have to back the pro-grants policy. In her election address, she said: "I applaud the Labour government when it gets things right. But when the Labour government gets things wrong, as it has with the war against Iraq, its policy on asylum seekers, the disastrous education policy which will send us back to the 19th century, I will attack them and will set out to beat them."

She called for unity: "The NUS is at its strongest when we are fighting together. If ever there was a time for unity, it is now. We have the government on the defensive."

Ms Telford promised a massive campaign against top-up fees, involving schools, parents and trade unions.

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