Shaped by the fees fight: new leader sets agenda after landslide victory

NUS president-elect claims students have been let down by main parties. Rebecca Attwood reports

April 22, 2010

MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates who fail to sign a pledge opposing any rise in student fees should not expect to receive a single vote from students, the president-elect of the National Union of Students has warned.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in Gateshead after being elected by an overwhelming majority at the NUS national conference last week, Aaron Porter said students had been let down by both the Conservatives' and Labour's "unacceptable silence" on fees prior to the general election.

Alongside making plans for a national demonstration, students on every campus in the country were developing "targeted strategies" to influence their local MPs, Mr Porter said.

"If individual candidates are not prepared to sign our pledge on the cap, then they should not expect to receive a single vote from students in their constituency."

As vice-president (higher education) at the NUS since 2008, Mr Porter, 25, has followed a well-trodden path to the presidency.

He was previously a sabbatical officer at the University of Leicester Students' Union and edited the university's student newspaper, The Ripple, while studying English literature.

Mr Porter is the son of a policeman and a nursery teacher. He grew up in Thornton Heath, near Croydon, in Surrey, and went to Wilson's School in Sutton, a selective boys' state school.

Although he said his family was not particularly political, it watched the BBC Six O'Clock News "almost religiously". When he was seven years old, he developed what was "perhaps an unhealthy interest" in the 1992 general election.

Mr Porter said he went to university with no intention of getting involved in student politics, but the top-up fees debate of 2004 captured his attention.

While influencing the debate on university fees was his first priority, he said the NUS would also lobby to prevent any further cuts to higher and further education, for more fully funded student places and for a "more sophisticated" system of university admissions, including post-qualification applications and greater use of contextual data.

In 2008, the NUS voted to shift its campaigning away from demanding free higher education to concentrate on opposing any attempts to raise the current cap on tuition fees.

On the conference floor last week, a motion calling for the union to restore "a strong campaigning national student voice for free education" was defeated, and Mr Porter said he was "committed to ensuring that the NUS remains a pragmatic player in the debate".

However, he added, "in the face of being stonewalled by a vice-chancellor", it was only right that students should be able to resort to other campaign tactics.

"I don't necessarily believe that occupation is the first thing to use, but as the debate becomes more intense, students become increasingly frustrated with the lack of political discourse and, I guess, some vice-chancellors more rampantly push for the cap to be lifted, then the tactics from students will, perhaps, become more direct," he said.

Mr Porter will take over from the current president,Wes Streeting, in June.

A NOT-SO-SATISFIED STATE: Motion calls for survey to be extended

Students are calling for the National Student Survey (NSS) to be extended to cover postgraduates and first-year undergraduates.

A motion passed at the national conference of the National Union of Students last week also says that the union will lobby for warts-and-all remarks in the comments section of the NSS, which are not publicly available, to be aggregated and published as a report. It argues that this would provide better information for potential students.

The motion welcomes the development of the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) and the parallel Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), but says there is a need for a more comprehensive national survey of taught postgraduates.

The PTES and the PRES need to be taken as seriously as the NSS and the results must allow comparison of courses at different institutions, it argues.

It promises that the NUS will also "aggressively campaign" to extend the NSS to first-year students because targeting final-year students gains responses only from those prepared to "put up with ... crap support and poor experiences".

A review of the NSS is currently taking place.

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said the study, which is being conducted by a team at the Institute of Education, would examine how the NSS could be "enhanced or developed", but was "not a fundamental review of the NSS and its existence".

The review of the NSS forms part of a wider inquiry examining what information about higher education should be publicly available.

Other motions passed at the NUS conference call for a US-style system under which universities would have to estimate the full and "hidden" costs of study, such as the cost of necessary books and equipment, and a promise to "name and shame" universities that choose not to include students on institutional audit-review panels.

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