CONSERVATIVES have launched a recruitment campaign to overcome undergraduate antipathy towards the party. They hope to mop up thousands of student members disaffected by the Labour leadership of the National Union of Students.
Leaders of the Conservative students want to see the organisation's 6,500-strong membership triple by the year 2000. They say they will jettison the traditional "blue-rinsed" image of the Conservatives and focus on bread and butter issues affecting students.
National chairman Gavin Williamson said: "It has been difficult to recruit in recent years because of students' perceptions of the Conservatives. I am not saying we will have 400 delegates to the next NUS conference and elect a Conservative president but we have to make a start.
"I think most students are small 'c' conservatives by upbringing. What we have to do is put forward a sensible agenda that all students can identify with. This may mean we have to throw out some traditional Conservative ideas and adopt a more caring and mainstream stance."
Mr Williamson said that the NUS could collapse because the controlling Labour students organisation had alienated members by supporting government proposals to abolish maintenance grants and negotiating on tuition fees. He said that disaffection had already caused a rise in the numbers of leftwing factions within the NUS.
He said: "I think NUS will die if it is not very careful. It is seen as a organisation of the Labour party which means it is representing the interests of the party of government. How can it then claim to represent its members?
"The NUS is traditionally anti-government but it has had no coherent approach to the introduction of tuition fees or the abolition of maintenance grants."
Mr Williamson said that he will write to all Conservative students branches urging them to put up candidates for student union elections. He said: "There is no point in standing on the sidelines complaining. Conservative students have to be involved and actively exposing the inadequacies of the NUS."
The Conservative students back Sir Ron Dearing's original recommendation that would have retained maintenance grants for less well-off students and introduced a flat-rate tuition fee which would have gone directly into improving university finances.
They say the poor will be deterred from entering higher education if maintenance grants are axed. They also fear that thegovernment's plans for tuition fees will amount to little more than a tax on graduates unless it guarantees that all the money raised will be ploughed back into highereducation.