NUS presidential candidate Shane Chowen should be riding high this week. The 22 year old NUS VP for Further Education has secured the support of three of the five NUS vice presidents and national newspapers such as the Guardian are tipping him as the frontrunner in the race to lead the union.
Considering his main rival, Liam Burns, the leader of NUS Scotland, is older, more experienced and has achieved huge things for the students in Scotland, I expected to meet an impressive, effortlessly charming candidate because at this stage, even for the ‘frontrunner’, every vote counts.
But last week at NUS HQ in central London, I met a tense, unsmiling Mr Chowen, so deeply uncomfortable with making eye contact that it is hard to believe that he could compete with the charismatic Mr Burns or firebrand activist Mark Bergfeld at conference hustings tomorrow.
Shifting uncomfortably, Mr Chowen snaps out answers to the most basic of questions. On being asked why he wants to lead the NUS now, Mr Chowen recites the mantra that he will return to again and again throughout the interview: “My passion for education is access, opportunity and a chance for everyone.”
Mr Chowen answers questions tersely while continuously checking his Blackberry, but he repeatedly tries to steer clear of the issues which have dominated and divided the NUS in the last six months – fees, cutbacks and protests. They shouldn’t be the focus of the NUS, he suggests.
“So long as the NUS focuses on full-time undergraduate model we are missing representing…people. What I want to do in the NUS is to change the barriers of the debate not only within our own movement but also more widely.”
It’s surprising that a candidate hoping to lead a union in headlines for protests, tuition fee hikes, and occupations, is so reluctant to discuss such things. Instead Mr Chowen talks about older learners, people returning to learning, apprenticeships and ‘non-traditional’ learners.
But Mr Chowen is an unusual candidate, not only is he the youngest of the candidates, he has never been to university. He has no experience of the student union system that the other candidates have moved through.
I ask him how he’s going to convince delegates at conference to vote for someone who’s never even been to university, let alone led a student union.
“They’ve all seen what I’ve achieved as VP for Further Education. They know I wear my heart on my sleeve, they know what I stand for. They know I’m passionate about adult education, they know I’m passionate about 16 to 19 education.”
I suggest that while the FE sector is an important minority in the movement, shouldn’t he be dealing with the huge challenges universities will be facing in the coming months. He interrupts and snaps: “It’s an important majority actually; the NUS represents 7m students, 5m of them are FE students.”
He bites out the response so fast and with a venom that suggests people are prone to disbelieving his numbers.
He tells me that he was responsible for setting up a students union at his own sixth form college in Plymouth, and repeats that he was involved in the EMA campaign and the campaign to increase minimum wage for apprenticeships.
But such achievements compare poorly with the huge gains for Scottish students Mr Burns made at the Scottish parliament and with Mr Bergfeld’s central role at the heart of organising national student protests.
An added complication for Mr Chowen is his close relationship with outgoing head of the union, the now derided Aaron Porter.
Mr Chowen and Mr Porter attended a rally together earlier this year in Manchester where they were heckled, booed and pelted with eggs. It was not long after this incident that Mr Porter announced he would not be standing for re-election.
I ask if he thinks this association with Mr Porter has tainted him. Mr Chowen’s expression darkens, “No, I was proud to stand beside Aaron. He achieved huge things for the student movement and brought the debate about fees front and centre.”
I ask how he can convince delegates that it won’t happen again:
“I can’t. People will throw eggs if they want to throw eggs. If people want to wear scarves covering their faces they will.”
In a rare moment of humour, he adds: “Next time I’ll bring an umbrella”
Mr Porter’s unpopularity stemmed from his reluctance to support student activism. When I ask Mr Chowen about his own stance on student protest, he dodges the question inexpertly and instead talks about the criminal damage that made the headlines in the wake of Day X: “What I find incredible is that no one’s even considering the shop worker who has just had all their windows smashed through and has to take six months off due to stress.”
This reluctance to engage in the biggest issue currently facing the NUS is in stark contrast to both Mr Burns’ determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with protesting students and Mr Bergfeld’s vocal support for direct action.
When I ask him about what protest exactly he would organise, he is cautious: “We have to be very strategic about when we do street demonstrations and what kind and what type of street demonstrations we do.”
As the interview ends, I’m left wondering how this young man, who turns sullen under scrutiny, is going to compete with the charisma of Burns and Bergfeld on the conference floor.
If he really is tipped for the top, it begs the question if this week’s election is a foregone conclusion, with NUS delegates prepared to blindly vote for the ‘in-house’ candidate.