Ms Pearce was elected the next president of the NUS at the union’s annual conference in Sheffield last week, after securing almost 60 per cent of the 732 valid votes cast.
However, dissatisfaction in the union’s ranks was highlighted by fellow presidential candidate Sam Gaus, who represented an “inanimate carbon rod”, and whose conference speech was designed to mock the processes and policies of the NUS.
“The inanimate carbon rod will not spend its time fighting for nothing but buzzwords…[and] will not make repetitive, generic policy,” Mr Gaus said, to cheers and applause.
Ms Pearce acknowledged that elements of the NUS’s membership were critical of its actions, but defended their right to make their voices heard.
“There’s a really long history of satire and humour in the student movement, and a lot of that is veiled criticism of different parts of the student movement,” she told a Times Higher Education podcast.
“We do have to recognise that there is criticism of the NUS, but we have to remember that it is a democratic organisation, and in a democratic organisation you have people who disagree with where you should go.”
Ms Pearce, who studied her A levels at Cornwall College and is the first NUS president not to have attended university, said her background would help her to unite the union.
“I do think the election of a further education president of the NUS is hugely significant to our movement – and that’s not because the NUS has suddenly decided that we are going to prioritise further education over higher education. It is about recognising that as a movement, we are connected,” she said.
“It sends a really strong message not just to the student movement but to the rest of the sector that education can’t just be split between further and higher education, because students face a lot of the same issues whichever sector they are in.”
She said it was really important that the union was challenged, encouraged debate, and had a politically diverse body, adding that there were things that the whole of the union body could unite behind, such as ensuring the education system is open and accessible.
“We absolutely need to be united behind the things we agree on, but recognise that we do have to accept criticism.”
In her own manifesto, Ms Pearce said she wanted to create an NUS that “stands for something, and isn’t just against something”, however she denied this was itself a criticism of how the union has operated in the past.
“I think it’s just my politics,” she told us. “I can sit around and talk about all the things I don’t like – I could say ‘I don’t like fees, I don’t like cuts and I don’t like austerity’, but I think most people in the student would agree.
“Maybe we need to start talking about what we do want to see; what would perfect education look like, rather than just reacting to what the government does, whether that is in further or higher education.”