Higher education’s leaders are “too scared of their own shadow” and too disunited to challenge the government, while the Russell Group should stop being “a shady organisation” and act in the wider interests of the sector, according to the outgoing president of the National Union of Students.
Looking back on a two-year term of office that ends on 28 June, after which he will become head of public affairs at the Scout Association (where former NUS chief executive Matt Hyde also moved earlier this year), Liam Burns lamented that “the only thing the sector can unite around is ring-fencing science funding”.
On higher education cuts, the Heriot-Watt University physics graduate told Times Higher Education: “You just think the political potency of the sector could turn round and say [to the government]: ‘This is a ridiculous course of action and you should just be investing more public cash.’”
He noted how a key sector body, Ucas, had quietly withheld institutional data on applications this year for fear that students would desert universities seen as unpopular.
Although Mr Burns was initially angry that students were being denied information, he came to sympathise with Ucas’ attempt to mitigate the effects of competition between universities. “That move by Ucas was trying to subvert the [government’s] system,” he said. “My frustration is that people are always too scared of their own shadow to say that.”
Mr Burns continued: “I wonder if at some point…the Russell Group stops being this shady, behind-the-scenes organisation and starts having a role more in talking about…the good of the wider sector.”
There is now a “critical mass of vice-chancellors in that group that could start saying much more progressive things”, Mr Burns said, citing Russell Group vice-chancellors such as Keith Burnett (of the University of Sheffield), Craig Calhoun (London School of Economics) and Sir Alan Langlands, who is soon to take over at the University of Leeds.
Regarding his term, Mr Burns cited as highlights the NUS’ legal intervention to help London Metropolitan University’s international students, the saving of Care to Learn – a government scheme to help teenage parents with childcare costs while they study – and a campaign for universities to pay the Living Wage, which has achieved its aim on 50 campuses.
No consumer association
He also said it was important that the NUS had rejected “going down a consumerist route” in its representation of students. That had given the Higher Education Funding Council for England “the room” to sidestep “what they were meant to do in the White Paper and become the consumer interest champion”.
Despite ardent opposition to David Willetts’ market vision, Mr Burns admitted to some admiration for the universities and science minister. He recalled discussions about switching emphasis in the National Scholarship Programme from tuition fee waivers, which arguably help the Treasury more than students, to money-in-your-pocket bursaries.
There was “almost a cheeky grin” on the minister’s face during the talks, “him knowing that the Treasury would hate the idea of trying to reduce fee waivers. He did go for that, and the NSP allows that to happen more now,” Mr Burns said, although he believes that the shift has not gone far enough.
On higher education funding, he still favours a graduate tax, which he sees as a way for the richest graduates – who have benefited most from higher education – to put back into the system via funding. “Debt would no longer be [an issue], you would have contributions coming back from the richest…the sector could have central planning, public money could be there in that system.”
Unlike many of his predecessors as NUS president, he will not pursue a career in Labour politics. “I’ve said it since the start: I’ve no interest in being an MP or doing elected politics,” said Mr Burns, who will be succeeded as president by Toni Pearce, the current vice-president for further education.
Instead, looking to his Scouts role, he defined his political interest as being in third-sector organisations and “creating agency where it doesn’t exist”, in ensuring that people are able to wield influence even though they are “not the people who would usually influence”.
On topic: Liam Burns on Willetts, Hefce and the value of campaigning
On the coalition’s vision of “students at the heart of the system”
“The thing that David [Willetts] should be most disappointed about [is that] for all his rhetoric…students have not a bit of additional power three years on…It’s the [funding] voucher that has the influence, not the student. For a sector that prides itself and justifies itself on creating active citizens, I think that’s a bit sad.”
On the Higher Education Funding Council for England
“I’m very worried about who the next Hefce chief exec is…If I were [Willetts] and wanted to be a bit more hawkish about pushing market behaviours, then I would have a very deep interest in what background [the successful candidate] came from.”
On NUS intervention in the London Met court case
“That was a game changer from the perspective of students…Moments like that show why the NUS is a campaigning organisation that can do things others can’t do.”