“Yeah, I come from the land of Milk and Honey” jokes Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, ruefully addressing, for what must be the hundredth time this week, the fact that none of his constituents in Scotland currently pay any tuition fees.
As tired of the question as he is, he knows it could be a major factor in next week’s NUS elections where resentment at the ‘free ride’ Scottish students currently enjoy, could influence who is elected president of the NUS.
Getting back on message remarkably quickly for a man who has just stepped off a delayed Glasgow-London train, Mr Burns shakes off the suggestion that to ‘fight fees’ you need to be facing them. “We’ve achieved a huge amount in the fight against putting a price tag on education north of the border and in Scotland.”
Mr Burns has a point. He knows this election is about more than just who pays what and when they pay it. The split in the NUS and between activists and lobbyists, has made this election one of the most significant in NUS history.
And it is this issue of uniting a fractured union on which Mr Burns has based his campaign.
Under his leadership, NUS Scotland gained political weight in Holyrood, but, unlike their counterparts in England, Mr Burns lead a union which stood firmly behind student activists who were occupying, demonstrating and striking.
“In Scotland we’ve done a lot of work with anti-cuts groups, it’s been robust, we don’t always have the same policy stances, but we’ve more in common than separates us.”
Mr Burns has never shied away from his support of direct action and even now, in the run-up to an election where he is relying on the support of firmly traditional, moderate NUS delegates, he is adamant that the union should use more than lobbying skills in their fight against the cuts in education.
“We need to get more comfortable with direct action. I don’t think smashing things up does win sympathy but occupations, demonstrations, civil disobedience; those are not a problem and I think we need to be more supportive of it. There were a lot of people at the protest in Millbank on 10th November who wanted to be part of civil disobedience. That’s the bit we never dealt with properly.”
Sam Hansford, Vice President for Services at Edinburgh University Students Union, believes it is this ability appeal to both activists and moderates which gives Mr Burns the edge over the other candidates:
“He was really supportive of the anti-cuts campaigners and really got them working together with the NUS rather than outside of it.”
Running against Mr Burns for NUS presidency are current NUS Vice president, Shane Chowen and the political activist Mark Bergfeld.
Mr Burns and Mr Chowen’s politics are quite similar, both styling themselves as ‘moderates’, but it is Mr Burns’ outspoken condemnation of previous NUS policy under Aaron Porter which could set his campaign apart.
“If we go down the route of treating education as a product and students as consumers then no-one’s going to be angry in four years time when we come back to challenging the whole fees regime ‘cos they’ve been told by their national union, you’re the customer and you get what you pay for. There is so much fundamentally wrong with the idea of students as consumers.”
Mr Burns’ impatience with the current NUS leadership comes across even through his practised media patter, “Our role is to sabotage this system, we’re not working within this regime and our aim is to bring it down. That’s the message we should be sending.”
Almost regardless of policies or politics, delegates at the annual conference next week are expect to elect a president who won’t expose them to the allegations of “dithering” and “spinelessness” that were levelled at the out-going president Aaron Porter.
They will also want one who will quell the continual rumours of splinter groups and activist cells within the NUS that have dogged Mr Porter’s presidency since November.
Although Mr Burns plays down his chances next week, as he dashes off to yet another planning meeting, he admits “for the first time in years it’s not a foregone conclusion. As long as Scotland votes for me, I’m in with a chance.”
The NUS annual conference will be held in Newcastle from the 12th – 14th April and the new NUS president will be elected on the 13th.