Aaron Porter, speaking at the opening of the conference in Newcastle today, acknowledged that he “did not get everything right”, adding: “For that, I am sorry.”
In particular, he said the NUS needed to improve its involvement in student protests and occupations.
“I don’t think we had a good enough plan for what came after the demonstrations on 10 November and I hold my hand up to that,” Mr Porter said.
However, he rejected claims that he was a “sell-out” and blamed “shadowy” Liberal Democrat advisers and the right-wing press for inaccurate reports.
“The government offered me various deals and inducements and I rejected every one of them, because that was the right thing to do,” he said.
Mr Porter also criticised those who justified violent action by comparing the student protests in England to those going on in places such as Egypt.
“There are lots of romantic notions about the nature of this struggle,” he said. “Trafalgar Square is not Tahrir Square and it is insulting and demeaning to suggest it is.”
In a separate address at the conference, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, congratulated the NUS for taking part in the protests, which she said “changed the political debate” in the UK.
She also urged delegates to continue to oppose government plans for higher education and “find what unites us: not what divides us – we don’t have that luxury”.
Mr Porter was heckled by a small number of delegates, but the real ire from the conference floor was reserved for the coalition government.
Ms Hunt opened her speech with a crowd-pleasing jibe aimed at the top two ministers at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: “David Willetts and Vince Cable are said to have three brains between them,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if one of them were working?”
The government’s reform of the student visa system also came in for criticism. Mr Porter said it was going to prove “very expensive for a very cheap headline.”
He also targeted Russell Group vice-chancellors, who he criticised for trying to lower the fees repayment threshold.
Mr Porter also reflected on the anger directed at Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats who was booed when footage of his pre-election pledge to fight tuition fees was played at the opening of the conference.
“We call them the Liberal Democrats because they are liberal with the truth and democratic in spreading the blame,” Mr Porter said.