Andrew Pakes was decisively voted in for a second term as National Union of Students president this week, foiling predictions of a far left victory.
Mr Pakes, a Labour student, beat Left Unity candidate Kate Buckell by more than 120 votes, a much larger margin than in last year's contest, when Ms Buckell came within 15 votes.
His victory comes in spite of strong words over student funding as NUS members had their first taste of tuition fees this year.
Charlotte Matthews, president of Sheffield Hallam University, said first years at her university who had refused to pay were "putting their heads on the block to save our education system".
"I don't think it is revolutionary for students to expect some action from their union in the face of the biggest change in education funding for years," she said.
Sit-ins have been staged in the last couple of weeks at University College London, Camberwell College of Arts and Goldsmiths College in support of students who claimed they were unable to pay their fees. Only Goldsmiths had NUS support.
Mr Pakes, 25, a Hull University graduate with an MA in environmental studies, said students were still radical and were angry at the way they had been treated over funding, but they had neither the time nor interest to indulge in constant occupations.
"What students are looking for is tough action against the government," he said. "But they want a rational explanation of what is happening in higher education."
Rather than continuing rows over grants and loans, he said, the union had to accept a mixed system and call for extra help for the poorest students, such as reinsttating housing benefit, awarding income support over the holidays and flexible one-off allowances when needed.
The union would continue to fight tuition fees - especially top-up fees, which he claimed were already under discussion at Warwick, Southampton and Nottingham universities, among others.
"This year, there is only a small group of students paying tuition fees," he said. "We hope the campaign will snowball as more come into the system."
But the student movement had to reform to make this possible. In the past students had more time to go to lunchtime meetings and stage demonstrations. Now they were too busy working or studying because they would be working later. Many were part-time and did not live in student halls close to the student union.
"Students are trapped by hardship," he said. "That makes it very difficult to campaign."
In future, the NUS would have to concentrate on local actions and working with other unions, recognising that their members were part of their communities.
But Ms Buckell, 25, a history graduate from Lancaster University, said students on the ground were much more radical than those who dominated conference. "Despite the lack of leadership they are doing things. The occupations of the last few months have been quite exciting."
An often rowdy debate over student funding ended in another victory for the ruling Labour students as the conference rejected motions to promote non-payment of tuition fees and organise national demonstrations against the loss of maintenance grants.
But the far left did manage to claim one victory when their candidate Helen Aspell narrowly beat the independent candidate to be voted treasurer.
* The National Union of Students is joining a Gateshead march organised by Unison on April 10 to campaign for a living wage.