Scots lead student U-turn

March 22, 1996

Student moderates are increasingly hopeful that the National Union of Students will abandon its traditional call for the restoration of full grants at its Blackpool conference next week, following a unanimous vote for reform by NUS Scotland.

Douglas Trainer, NUS Scottish president and favourite to succeed Jim Murphy as president of NUS, said: "We're hoping that the voice of Scottish student associations will be listened to, and the national conference comes out with a policy of realism rather than revolution."

A special conference in Derby last year committed NUS to a policy of demonstrations and occupations in support of 1979-level grants. But the Scottish conference backed a Strathclyde University amendment condemning the policy as outdated, serving only to marginalise the student movement. The NUS Wales conference three weeks ago similarly rejected the policy.

The Scottish conference did not rule out students contributing towards their education but there was solid opposition to either entrance levies or top-up fees.

But there is unlikely to be unanimity in Blackpool. Three of the six amendments to the motion on education funding oppose any form of student contribution.

The moderate pressure group New Solutions has argued that restoring grants and reintroducing benefits for students would cost almost Pounds 11 billion, but one amendment says the claim that the country cannot afford free education is nonsense: "The ten richest people in the world have a combined wealth of Pounds 76.3 billion; they could fund a return to full grants and benefits several times over and still have change."

Ghassan Karian, president of the University of London Union, and coordinator of New Solutions, said: "It's going to be an intense debate, and one which is very passionate, since there are strong feelings on both sides. This is one of the most important student conferences in this country for decades."

But he said a number of areas and individuals had shifted in favour of reform in recent months. "They accept the present policy is unachievable and will not address the problems we face of student hardship, the fall in quality and the need to increase access."

The main motion calls for a campaign against education cuts and student poverty, and for NUS to work with bodies such as the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and Association for Colleges to widen the debate on student hardship.

* Liberal Democrats have backed their party's new further and higher education proposals, despite strong student opposition, writes Tony Tysome.

Fierce campaigning by the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students Group at the party's conference in Nottingham last weekend failed to overcome support for plans to make students contribute more to the cost of their education, outlined in the policy paper, The Key to Lifelong Learning.

The paper calls for new student support arrangements which could amount to students contributing Pounds 400 per year more on average.

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