Should the NUS have fought to keep grants or was it a lost cause?

March 9, 2001

Should the National Union of Students have fought harder to keep the grant? Can it do anything to reverse the state of student support? Many student leaders believe the NUS took a wrong turn in the mid-1990s, moving too far towards pragmatism.

The leadership of the moderate Labour Students, typified by Jim Murphy, steered student action towards measured negotiation and behind-the-scenes contacts.

Mr Murphy was convinced that the union's traditional support for the universal grant was a lost cause.

The leadership was certainly good at accumulating favours -former presidents Stephen Twigg, Lorna Fitzsimmons and Jim Murphy all became Labour MPs in 1997. But their influence proved to be limited, and the compromise solutions to the student funding issue promoted by the NUS were largely ignored by Dearing and the Labour government.

The favoured concept of the NUS in 1995 and 1996 was the maintenance income-contingent loan, or MICL, which Mr Murphy fought to get the movement to accept. The hard left put up a strong fight, and defeated Mr Murphy on the issue at an extraordinary conference in Derby in 1995, but 1996 saw NUS leadership finally win when conference voted to ditch its commitment to full grants.

Emily Baldock, a former president of Durham Students' Union, believes that the NUS failed to find a sensible position between the ultra-pragmatists and the hard left.

Ms Baldock, now a doctoral student at Wolfson College, Oxford, and a part-time lecturer, doubts that the NUS could have affected the new government's policy.

The vote coincided with the election of Douglas Trainer to the presidency. Mr Trainer had some tough times in office and was criticised for caving in to the government too easily on tuition fees.

Mr Trainer, who is now in public relations, believes the NUS did not grasp the financial constraints on the government. "The student movement failed to understand the power of the Treasury. When Labour... opened the books, they realised they couldn't work on the funding models that had been talked about."

And although he says the NUS's access to government improved significantly once Labour got in, it was unable to convince the leadership to change tack.

Many are convinced that the tide is turning. Owain James, the independent president, has provided a fresh direction. He believes he is well-placed to push for a return to maintenance support.

He does not believe that the events of the 1990s have weakened NUS's position. "We've got a policy that unites the student movement and a campaign that we can win," he said.

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