Written by Aaron Porter
It was always clear that this year would be an eventful one in which to be NUS President – with the publication of the Browne review due, with a new Government and with funding cuts widely predicted.
I knew that NUS would have a huge fight on our hands, and would need to do an enormous amount to raise the profile of the impending further and higher education given everything else that was going on.
However, there can’t be many people who would have predicted that NUS would have managed to achieve so much. We have completely torn apart the credibility of the Government’s higher education plans, with the majority of the public strongly opposing the changes. We created the coalition Government’s first major parliamentary test, and caused chaos for the Government whips, with both the Lib Dems and the Tories utterly divided on the issue.
We have made the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) a major issue, where the coalition Government had hoped to quietly sneak through the cut without even a parliamentary statement or vote. And we mobilised over 50,000 people in the biggest street demonstration seen in the UK in years, which in turn led to a wave of student protests across the country.
I am proud of what we have managed to achieve – and the excellent position we are in both as an organisation and as a movement in order to continue to stand up for students on education funding and fees, and indeed on the issues relating to student welfare, representation and numerous others which we work on. Students rights must be defended, extended and promoted – now more than ever.
However, there has inevitably been criticism from some quarters of the approach NUS have taken – partly, it must be said, exactly because of the very high-profile our campaign has managed to achieve.
Some of these critics it must be said have always opposed us, for ideological reasons – in some cases because they do not believe in unionism and the importance of having a strong, national voice standing up for students; and in some case because they do not believe that we sufficiently represent their own sectional interests or that we do not go far enough in pushing a particular political agenda.
These debates have been raging for as long as there has been a politically active National Union of Students – but I am clear in my belief both in the importance of having a national voice for students, and moreover that this voice must be democratically determined to reflect the full breadth of the student movement, rather than just a few who every so often shout loudest.
However, it is entirely fair and legitimate for others to genuinely question the approach we have taken – indeed, we would be far weaker as a movement if it were not for these discussions and debates. So I would now like to take the opportunity to address some of these issues, and argue why I feel that we have in fact taken the approach that is best for students, and for our movement.
Through the Vote for Students campaign, I believe we can claim to have run the most high-profile initiative of any campaigning organisation in many years. By focusing on individual candidates, rather than political parties, it captured a level of attention which no other organisation can claim in 2010. The ‘pledge’ was constantly referred to throughout the debate on tuition fees, and secured a level of media prominence which had more of an impact on the Government than any other issue to date.
After all, it was our campaign through its many guises which still inflicted the biggest rebellion this Government has encountered so far, and one of only a few issues where at least some politicians from every single party voted against the Coalition’s plans. It also secured every single Labour, SNP, Plaid, DUP, SDLP, and Green MP voting against the Government and the biggest backbench rebellion in the history of the Liberal Democrats. Whilst only a consolation, we shouldn’t forget this achievement.
The NUS national demonstration on 10 November 2010 saw over 50,000 students, lecturers and members of the general public marching together in the largest street protest since the start of the Iraq war. This came to be one of the major political events of the year, and helped us to further raise the profile our opposition to the proposed education funding cuts and the tuition fee hike.
Losing the vote in Parliament hurt, and I believe the consequences will be damaging for access, quality and the reputation of higher education in this a country. Reforms predicated on an unprecedented retrenchment of state funding, a gamble with our sector which has been untried anywhere across the globe which could dangerously backfire as market forces are left to run riot. Worse still, a scarcity of places combined with weak regulation could push prices up, bankrupting the system that the Government has optimistically costed.
But there is no doubt that the proposals would have been far more regressive and far more damaging if it were not for the work that we all did. Whilst it is hard to take much pleasure from these ‘gains’ – from the preventing an additional third of part time students from paying upfront fees (as the Government had proposed until two days before the vote), to the raising of the repayment threshold, to the renewed focus on access and greater powers for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) – they are a credit to those who pushed for them.
And our campaign has ensured that University fees and funding will be a huge issue again at the next election. And whilst it would be tempting to retrench to the comfort of never-ending demonstrations, our job now- both locally and nationally- must now be to focus on ensuring that students aren’t left without protection and safeguards in the new environment; ensuring the campaign for state investment isn’t lost; and strict new criteria is brought in place to improve access and retention.
I will continue to defend and advocate the approach NUS has taken – through it, I believe that we have achieved a great deal, and it puts us on a strong footing for the future. As universities angle to charge the maximum £9,000 fees for students with scant safeguards, right of challenge or access provision for students, we need to stand up and stand together for students’ interests and rights – and I hope you’ll join us!