Less than a month into his post, Liam Burns knows the NUS, and particularly its president, need a rebrand after his predecessor’s disastrous tenure at the top of the union.
Despite his predecessor’s love affair with the bright lights and soft sofas of breakfast news programmes, Aaron Porter was never a particularly savvy media operator, unlike Mr Burns, who barely a month into the job is already styling himself a people’s president.
“Well, I can hardly be seen to be wearing a suit when most of our members don’t,” Burns says, explaining his decision to conduct his first round of Westminster meetings in casual trousers and shirt; turning his back on Porter’s trademark oversized suit worn religiously for all media appearances.
A cynical move, perhaps, to cement the grassroots support which helped him defeat odds-on favourite, Shane Chowen, to win the NUS presidency with 60 per cent of the final round votes at NUS conference last month.
But, looking at the year ahead, winning the presidency might be only the first skirmish in a war which will rage for the foreseeable future.
£9,000 fees, no EMA, a controversial government white paper and a fractured union will make this a challenging tenure, even for this battle-hardened Scot.
The scale of the challenge is undeniable, and while Mr Burns won massive popular support with delegates at conference, he knows he was not the first choice of the NUS VPs, who mostly backed Mr Chowen’s election bid.
Does this make it awkward – in the murky world of student political intrigue, will Burns always have enemies within his own leadership team? “They’re disappointed. That was their guy, and I’ve just got to build bridges on our agenda, not on personality.”
Burns may protest, but he needs these VPs on-side. At the NUS conference, delegates voted against staging another national demonstration and activist-minded Burns is determined to overturn this: “I just can’t think of a time when for the first time we’ll be paying £9,000 when we won’t have EMA, why a manifestation on a national level is something we wouldn’t want to have.”
When I suggest that maybe some in the NUS are nervous at the thought of a repeat of the Millbank occupation, he is uncomfortable: “The reason why a lot of the VPs were against it is because it literally does take up a lot of our resources and a lot of our staff.”
Neatly dodging the question of how he will convince his colleagues to stand shoulder to shoulder with angry students, he responds, “Well, I want to re-visit that debate.”
This is pure political diplomacy from the man who once claimed to have no political ambitions and he rarely wavers from his political patter. Even when asked about his meeting with the highly controversial universities minister David Willetts, who recently said that extra university places would be made available for students who could afford to pay upfront and that feminism had stopped working class men from going to university, he responds: “He’s actually a very intelligent guy,” an unexpected and frankly alarming praise for the conservative politician from a man so committed to students’ rights in the run-up to the NUS elections.
But when asked if this is a sign that he will be seduced by the bright lights and glamour of Westminster, in the way Aaron Porter was, he dismisses the suggestion. “Aaron wasn’t seduced by Westminster, he did a good job at a difficult time.”
But Porter was so vilified by the militant sections of the student movement I have to ask if he was tempted to bring down his own campaign and PR team from Scotland, “Ah Jeez, the guys in Scotland are great. But I’m not a president that can move a team around with me. Nobody would want the job if they had to leave every time a new NUS president was elected. I can’t fire any of them.”
Would he want to? Considering Porter was slated for his permanent residence on GMTV sofas? “No, NUS UK is an incredibly talented team.”
But Porter became a hate-figure for many in student politics and I ask if he’s scared about the year to come, whether he is worried that this time next year university places will be taken up by the richest not the brightest and that the NUS will have failed its members again?
After a pause, Burns replies, “I’m scared for the future of the sector. I think we all are.”
With that nugget of spin, Burns reveals he isn’t not scared; he’s rubbing his hands together with glee at the prospect of the fight to come.
He may have once protested that he had no political ambitions, but looking at the year ahead, he may not have a choice.