NUS president bows out with some advice for her successor. Paul Hill reports
It would be a mistake for the National Union of Students to walk away from the negotiating table despite frustration with the Government over tuition fees, outgoing president Mandy Telford warned her successor this week.
As she cleared her desk at NUS headquarters on Friday, Ms Telford said she hoped that the NUS would not turn its back on dialogue with ministers in favour of tub-thumping demonstrations and protest politics.
Her successor, the leftwinger Kat Fletcher, was elected on a platform of direct action against fees - although it remains to be seen what form that action will take.
Ms Telford, who has remained loyal to the Labour Party despite opposing the Government's fees policy, is proud that the NUS under her leadership was granted regular meetings with Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson and Secretary of State Charles Clarke.
She won the NUS presidency in 2002 after leading the union in Scotland and was buoyed by a successful campaign to persuade the Scottish Parliament to abandon upfront fees.
Ms Telford told The Times Higher : "Demonstrations have a huge part to play in campaigns, but they will not win or lose you a campaign. You have to use all the tools you have. That includes having a discussion with the people in power and who will ultimately make the decision.
"We now have scheduled meetings with the Secretary of State - three or four a year - and the Minister for Higher Education - every couple of months.
That's something we've never had before in the NUS.
"Quite often we go into those meetings and we know they are not going to move on what we want. But there is an open dialogue, and I think that has to happen with whatever government there is."
Yet the fact remains that, barring an 11th-hour defeat for the Higher Education Bill, the NUS's seat at the top table will not have prevented the introduction of differential top-up fees in 2006, the biggest financial burden placed on undergraduates in a generation.
Ms Telford was quick to stress that there were some "wins on the margins" of the debate about the Bill. She mentioned the return of grants and the securing of a higher income threshold for the repayment of debt than ministers had first suggested.
"All of those things I'm proud of," she said.
"I'm proud that so many people understand what we are campaigning for, and I really think no one could ignore what we were fighting for."
So why then did the campaign fail?
Ms Telford said: "You have to remember that this is a government with one of the biggest majorities since the Second World War and we came within five votes of winning.
"There was a lot of politics around the MPs' second vote. I don't believe that everyone who voted with the Government suddenly agreed with it about the market in higher education. It was a very political game that was going on."
As a committed party member, Ms Telford saw no problem opposing Labour over fees.
"I am a political person and a member of the Labour Party for the values that I hold, but I'm quite happy to say when I think the Government is wrong," she said.
"Party members have had their faith tested over the past 12 months. But I'm a great believer that you should never abandon the party."
She remains convinced that time will prove the NUS right and that a generation of students will emerge who picked their courses on the basis of price rather than what they truly wanted to study or their talents.
Ms Telford, 28, now moves to a campaigning role at trade union Amicus, but also hopes for election to Labour's governing body, the National Executive Council.
Despite speculation she would seek candidacy in a safe Labour parliamentary seat after leading the NUS, Ms Telford sees her future outside Westminster.
"I'm a campaigner and very political. I've spent the last two years being called a careerist and people saying that I'd end up in Westminster. But it's not true, it's not what I'm interested in or where I'm going."
'I think I have probably been struck off the Christmas card lists of quite a few people over the past two years'
'It always amuses me when my opponents accuse me of being a stooge in the pocket of Tony Blair/Charles Clarke/Millbank apparatchiks (delete as appropriate and repeat ad nauseam at high volume). In fact, I think my two years leading the NUS have proved exactly the opposite'