TV-struck president aims for political stage

March 27, 1998

Harriet Swain looks at the candidates vying to be president at next week's NUS conference

Things have happened around Douglas Trainer. His election as president of the National Union of Students in March 1996 coincided with the union's historic decision to ditch calls for full maintenance grants and support income-contingent loans instead. He stands down as probably the last president to preside over a student body free of tuition fee charges and eligible for grants.

In the meantime, as a Labour student, he has seen the political party he supports come to power after 18 years and then fought against their key higher education policy. What has it been like?

He says his first great moment was being elected after occupying the forefront of the battle for a "more realistic" policy on maintenance.

His second was the success of last year's general election campaign. He is proud of the NUS for concentrating on encouraging students to vote and focusing on student issues.

This year has been tougher. While claiming successes such as the government's agreement not to charge fees for gap-year students and to fix the fee at a quarter of tuition costs, he concedes there have been low points too.

Education secretary David Blunkett was not helpful when he paid tribute to the students for helping out with the changes. And "some of the personal criticism has got to me," he says.

But he has liked being on television and the "tremendous experience" he has picked up, including the experience of "talking to half-empty debating chambers about issues people aren't interested in at all - good training for the House of Commons".

Aha, so are rumours of his political ambitions correct? Has he not missed the boat for becoming a Labour MP? He quickly points out that he is Scottish and so eligible for the Scottish Parliament, although he says his name was not in by close of applications this month. Now , he is "talking to people" about other career options.

On the student movement itself, he says the "pressures of being a student in the 1990s mean you have to be more self-centred". Student unions are under more pressure to deliver quality services while international campaigns have been put on the back-burner.

He would like to have seen an end to "the big fight that happens every year at Blackpool" and one of his regrets, he says, is that he was never able to reform the NUS. It looks like New NUS will have to wait for someone else.

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