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NUS President election: Interview with Liam Burns

Following Aaron Porter’s announcement that he is stepping down when he has completed his term in office, the race is on for the next President of the National Union of Students. With the student movement more high-profile than ever, the contest is significant for students and non-students alike.

There are three candidates standing: Mark Bergfeld, Liam Burns and Shane Chowen. In the first of three interviews, I interview Liam Burns, current President of NUS Scotland. Liam tweets as @nus_liam.

1) What is the alternative to tuition fees and the marketisation of education?

It won’t be popular on your blog, but I’m not going to pretend my politics are something they’re not. A graduate tax, with high thresholds above average earnings before it kicks in, proportional to earnings above that threshold and completely absent of any price-tag, is utterly fair in my books.

I have no truck with the idea that well off graduates contributing something back to help future generations into education is anything but a good thing. I also will not treat higher education in isolation to other spending priorities like health, welfare and primary/secondary education.

It was a mistake for us to decouple financial support for students and how the sector is funded. The work must start now to build a case for winning back a student support system that widens access and undermines the market the Coalition Government has tried to create, but there is something very powerful about any contribution going back solely to bolster student support.

So, as unpopular as it will be in these circles, I am behind a graduate tax with the right conditions.

2) You’re President of NUS in Scotland, where there are no university tuition fees for Scottish students. If free education is good enough for students north of the border, why not elsewhere?

Education is not free in Scotland. The largest research project into students lives that we conducted last year,Still in the Red, showed that one in three think of dropping out because of financial strain. Nearly three quarters of students work part-time in excess of recommended limits and over half are forced into commercial debt through credit cards and overdrafts. We have the worst widening access record in the whole of the UK. It’s no coincidence that we also have the worst financial support package in the whole of the UK.

So it’s right that once again NUS Scotland has got the Scottish Government to rule out tuition fees in our equivalent of the Browne Review. But the real crisis is actually in student support. Last year we won an extra £30m for student support and £2m for childcare. This year we won an extra £15m for college bursaries, a legal entitlement for student parents to child care support and saved EMA. Our focus remains on getting more money in students pockets and the power of the arguments that comes from holding to that purpose has meant we have won time and time again. NUS UK need to reclaim ground on how students are financially supported.

We may not have fees, but don’t think it’s all rosy north of the border. It’s not.

3) How could the NUS have played things differently with the new student movements that emerged after last November’s NUS/UCU demo?

We should have been honest about the tensions between students’ unions who traditionally have won significantly for students locally through lobbying and influencing, and anti-cuts groups that had more affinity for direct action. NUS retrenched into the ‘left’ vs. the ‘moderates’ narrative once again. That wasn’t the landscape anymore. Those in occupation and other protests weren’t by any means all SWP activists with a broader political agenda. Some might not have even considered themselves particularly left. They simply had more connection to the direct action being organised around them and couldn’t understand why NUS was attacking them for that.

I put down two amendments at the NUS National Executive Committee to remove direct criticism of EAN/NCACF and all Scottish reps voted to support the London action on 26th January. Now I’m not claiming direct action is my natural turf at all. I am saying that in Scotland we’ve tried our best to be honest about those tensions and make room for different tactics by working with anti-cuts groups, not against them.

4) The NUS has been damaged by revelations that it secretly suggested that the Coalition cut student grants and charge market rates of interest on student loans; as well as by describing elements of the Government’s education policies as “progressive”. Are you willing to distance yourself from this?

Student support has always been my priority. Deferred fees may be horrific, but if you don’t have the cash while you study then you drop out. End of story. Ensuring students have enough money in our pockets while studying is critical, and actually is at the core of why the most damaging the coalition has made to date was removal of EMAs, not increasing fees. So yes, I can assure you the compromise of less student support to reduce fees is not something I’d accept.

Where we are in real danger of getting it wrong now is accepting we have to work within the limits the Government has given us. There is nothing ‘progressive’ about the current fees regime. That’s like putting a drop of vinegar in a pint of water and calling it wine. NUS does have a role of giving the best advice to students’ unions, even the most difficult types of advice, but I’m clear that we have to win the arguments for better student rights on campuses because it is right for widening access, society and the economy – not because we want ‘bang for our buck.’

5) Under your leadership, would the NUS support and build for new protests and/or non-violent direct action?

Yes. My manifesto is clear that we have a duty to educate new generations of students so we don’t slip into acceptance in four years time when having students aware and angry about the system they study under is critical. We should mark the increasing of tuition fees and scrapping of EMA with a national demonstration. Crucially that has to be connected with influencing parliamentary machinery, but of course also empowers new students to get involved with the campaign.

That works both ways though. Groups like EAN and NCACF have been critical of NUS for not being able to mobilise students on very short notice and small resource. Fine. I’ll take the criticism but with the threat of NUS somehow trying to undermine that action removed then get on with it. NUS has a massive range of activities and I won’t let us drop everything all of the time for direct action. But we will be supportive.

6) What are your thoughts on the occupations that swept many university campuses across the country?

If I’m being utterly honest, I’m still learning about occupations. I went to Edinburgh’s and Newcastle’s and never quite nailed if they were always about demands to the institution or simply a space to organise. I think it varies. They should never disrupt learning as that is utterly counter productive and NUS will always takes its lead on support from the students’ union. But they are certainly going to become more important as decisions are increasingly taken by local management and not national bodies.

7) One of the striking features of the protests since November has been the involvement of sixth formers. How could the NUS involve these newly politicised young people?

Getting into School will be critical but lets not expect open doors to an anti-fees road show making its way across the country. During the Town Takeovers that NUS and students’ unions organised, many were invited into Schools to get pupils involved. Being able to deliver principles of citizenship and encouraging access will act as ways into the class room, but educating on what the fees regime means has to come part and parcel of that.

That’s not just about schools either. I want to dedicate funding to the FE campaign to support activists who are likely to go onto higher education – if we have those leaders now then in three years time we’ll be in a much stronger position to campaign against the fees regime.

8 ) How would you describe your overall strategy for defeating the Government’s agenda?

Rejecting consumerism. We have to ensure that we’re not won over by the temptation to act like the consumers the Government wants us to become. It might be justified to start demanding a better education under the guise of ‘value for money’, but it would be the wrong thing to do. We can’t end up in a position where students have been pacified as a generation content with ‘you get what you pay for’ if we are to win the argument for reintroduction of public money in higher education and a fairer funding system. We’ve fought for things like better feedback, contact hours and estates because it leads to a better education and ultimately better graduates before – we don’t need to resort to market rationale to continue that campaigning.

Getting to the future leaders. School pupils, first years and college students are going to be the ones leading the campaign and so giving ownership and support to them from day one is critical.

Remembering who our target is. We can’t keep arguing within the movement. The tensions that exist have to be dealt with as far as they can. Crucially, and I say this to both perspectives, developing respect for the fact that direct action and lobbying are not mutually exclusive forms of activism.

9) Would you link up with trade unions as part of a broader movement against the cuts agenda? If so, how?

Yes, but that shouldn’t be our focus. Trade Unions will lead on attacks to employment and benefits, and we’ll follow. But we should start being more honest that the vast majority of our resource has to be on leading against attacks to education, because trade unions will want to follow.

10) What reforms would you support to make the NUS more democratic?

NUS is owned by its members. If you want to change it, then do the graft and get the changes you want to see through your union councils. Personally, I have got sympathy for the idea of directly electing NUS officers as it should really shift what candidates have to talk about. But in reality, I’m convinced it is logistically not possible. Turnout would be tiny and you would open the door wider open for factional control.

You can download Liam Burns’ draft manifesto here.

2 Comments

  1. Wyrdtimes says:

    While things might not be rosy for students in Scotland they’re certainly a lot rosier than they are in England.

    There’s a NUS Scotland, NUS Wales, NUS NI and NUS UK but no NUS England.

    Only English students face £9k a year fees – isn’t it time time the NUS created NUS England?

  2. Eseoghene says:

    Go boy, u can do it

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