Source: Will Bunce/NUS
The next president of the National Union of Students has called on activists to stop squabbling over tactics as the organisation’s support for the latest wave of occupations at universities is debated.
The NUS has at times been criticised for not doing more to support student-led direct action against cuts and tuition fees.
The defeated candidate for the presidency told the organisation’s annual conference last week that it “sleepwalks while the attacks are raining down”.
But Megan Dunn, who was elected to the top job at the conference after a year as vice-president for higher education, said that she was “very clear” that students “absolutely have the right to occupy”.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, she issued a call for unity. “We fight often within the student movement over whose tactics are better,” Ms Dunn said. “What we should be doing as a movement is recognising that some people want to use some tactics and other people want to use others, and that we should support and work together in those tactics.
“At the end of the day, we’re usually fighting for the same thing.”
In recent months, police have used CS spray on University of Warwick students protesting for free education. Meanwhile, a four-week sit-in at the University of the Arts London came to an end after the institution served an injunction on the occupiers.
Noting that some institutions appeared to regard student activism as “something that they would rather didn’t happen”, Ms Dunn linked this to heightened concern about reputational damage in an increasingly marketised sector.
But the 24-year-old argued that universities that want to create “active citizens” who can critique society had to accept that criticism might sometimes be directed at them.
“The way that some institutions have responded has given the impression that they think of their students as people to fill their bank balances and not as people who are part of their academic communities,” Ms Dunn said.
Although Ms Dunn won the backing of many Labour-supporting delegates in her defeat of anti-cuts presidential candidate Beth Redmond, she said that she would stand up for the rights of students against whichever party was in power following the general election.
Labour’s plan to lower tuition fees to £6,000 would be a “step in the right direction”, Ms Dunn said, but she added that the fight for free education would go on – a position that was endorsed by a motion at the conference.
Identifying a key priority for her term of office, Ms Dunn, a former president of the Aberdeen University Students’ Association, said that students were facing a cost-of-living problem and that many were struggling to make ends meet.
The conference agreed to call for means-tested loans to be made available for people taking a second undergraduate degree. Ms Dunn suggested that she would like to see more means-testing of support for students, arguing that targeted funding was what “really makes a difference” to access.
She said she would campaign, too, for the lifting of the age limit, currently set to be 30, on eligibility in the new government loan scheme for master’s study, which is likely to be introduced next year.
Ms Dunn also expressed concern about the potential impact of the planned abolition of the cap on student numbers, warning that undergraduates were already being forced to sleep in temporary buildings and to sit on stairs during lectures.
Institutions should not push ahead with expanding numbers if planned accommodation was not ready, she said.