NUS opts for moderate voices and choices over Left turns

Cooler heads prevail at the student union's annual convention, reports Sarah Cunnane

April 21, 2011

The images of student protesters splashed across the front pages of newspapers during the demonstrations of recent months depicted palpable anger and even violence.

From the storming of the Conservative Party's Millbank headquarters in London to the occupation of university campuses up and down the country, it has been the Left of the student movement that has dominated the coverage.

But at the annual conference of the National Union of Students, held last week in Gateshead, more moderate views prevailed.

In discussions about how the union should approach activism over the next year, a number of ideas tabled by the Left were voted down by a large majority.

These included a suggestion that the NUS should congratulate all those who took part in last November's protests, a call to support the work of the anti-cuts movement UK Uncut, and a resolution to affiliate the union with the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).

Delegates at the conference also voted against a resolution to hold a national demonstration in the first semester of the next academic year.

Another indication that more mainstream views prevail within the union came in the re-election of Usman Ali as vice-president for higher education. There had been rumours that Mr Ali faced possible defeat at the hands of Michael Chessum, education and campaigns officer at University College London and co-founder of the NCAFC.

Mr Chessum pledged in his manifesto to pursue "direct and industrial action to reverse fees and cuts", whereas Mr Ali made no explicit reference to the protests of recent months in his campaign.

Instead, he focused on championing widening participation, the rights of adult learners, and the reformation of plagiarism rules and the Quality Assurance Agency.

"Widening access and participation from my view needs to be the priority," he said.

In the event, Mr Ali was re-elected by a comfortable margin, suggesting that the concerns of the wider student movement go far beyond the well-publicised reaction to higher tuition fees.

Liam Burns, the newly elected president of the NUS, said that integrating the work of student activists into the union's wider strategy was important (see box below).

But he also said that there were wide differences of opinion among students about how higher education should be funded.

Mr Burns has indicated that he favours a graduate tax, the official position of the Labour Party, of which he is a member.

"There are a number of different views in the student movement about how you fund education, whether it be completely free or a graduate tax or fees of some sort," he said.

But he added: "That has been taken off the pitch at the moment because we have far more to focus on in terms of improving student support and making sure that public funding is top of the agenda come the next election."

To boldly (and realistically) go: President-elect Liam Burns keen to keep the public on side

Liam Burns will know what he is letting himself in for as the next president of the National Union of Students.

His predecessor, Aaron Porter, is stepping down in June after months of criticism, having failed to convince students that he was adequately channelling their anger over plans to strip public funding from universities and treble the tuition-fee cap.

Mr Burns, who is currently head of NUS Scotland, told Times Higher Education that he had bold ambitions, but he urged the union's members to be realistic.

"The sad thing is that we're not going to have a debate around the funding of higher education for a number of years now," he said.

"Are we going to have the wins that we want in the next year? Probably not. Are we going to have them in two years? Maybe not. But there are monumental wins we can achieve if we keep public opinion on our side, and if we keep the powerful arguments that we and the public have been making. I think come the next general election we could have the biggest wins the student movement has ever seen."

Delegates at the NUS conference voted against plans for a national demonstration in November to mark the first anniversary of the vote to raise fees, but Mr Burns said he remained "really keen" on the idea, which had formed part of his election manifesto.

He said he may revisit it after the publication of the higher education White Paper, as it was "only then that we'll know where the NUS will need to focus its resources".

The president-elect, who has pledged to "reject the idea of students as consumers", said occupations and protests were legitimate courses of action, but acknowledged that direct action on its own would not achieve the union's aims. "I also want to be sat around a table making powerful arguments to decision-makers," he said.

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