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 second of three interviews, I interview Shane Chowen, Vice President (Further Education) of the NUS. Shane tweets as @shanechowen.
1) What is the alternative to tuition fees and the marketisation of education?
As NUS President I will continue to oppose the tuition fees at all levels of education. My candidacy is all about creating an education system where choice and opportunity come first, two things that a market stamps out. My view is that if we’re really serious about providing opportunities for more people in higher education, then the fairest way is to introduce a graduate contribution linked to earnings after graduation. I support the principles behind NUS’ alternative HE funding model because it abolishes tuition fees and allows for a more flexible education system, by allowing people to leave and re-enter education for example, and it promotes widening access in a way which tuition fees and a market simply can’t.
2) How could the NUS have played things differently with the new student movements that emerged after last November’s NUS/UCU demo?
Many different forms of activism have emerged since last November, each taking a different approach in ultimately achieving the same goal. What I think NUS has to do is maintain a member-led strategy when it comes to our tactics as an organisation which of course recognises that students will react in different ways, become active at different issues and hold different views on what is or isn’t effective. What I resent is the way the debate has turned into a “my tactics are better than yours” which some have used to bash NUS with, at a time when we’re all fighting the same fight, just in different ways.
I want to lead an NUS which responds in a way our collective membership want us to respond through the democratic decision making processes we have. Other groups will act in different ways and that’s fine but what has to end is the bitter war which is essentially over whose logo goes on flyers because this is what turns students away.
3) 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?
I will not distance myself from the right wing spin machine which attempts to bring down NUS’ credibility but tackle it head on. Both of those occasions have taken NUS’ communications outrageously out of context and have been blatant attempts to weaken NUS. I also think these kinds of attacks will appear in the same kinds of newspapers consistently over the coming months in the run up to a report which is being published soon by the right wing “Young Britons Foundation” which will call NUS and Students’ Unions ‘dangerous organisations’ and attempt (again) to discredit and shut us down.
On the recent Times article, NUS wasn’t even approached for a comment; which is partly why I’m convinced that there’s an agenda here. Anyone who reads the actual briefing that went out, and actually anyone who has followed the response to the fees debate, will know that providing part time students with the same level of funding as full time student is progressive because it means more “non-traditional” students gaining from higher education. As NUS President I will face down any attack on the credibility of NUS and students’ unions wherever it comes from, we’ve got a job to do!
4) Under your leadership, would the NUS support and build for new protests and/or non- violent direct action?
There is of course ‘demand’ for direct action to take place and I think as Universities announce their fee levels, as redundancies take hold in the education and public sector and as youth unemployment continues to rise, more and more students and young people will want to be part of a movement that says no. That’s why I want to continue our relationship with the Trade Union movement and extend it to a local level too. When I organised the two days of action for the Save EMA Campaign, the strength and power of local direct action was astounding. One of the best days I’ve had as VPFE was speaking at a rally after a demonstration organised by a small sixth form college in Taunton. I was proud that NUS was there to help them organise that demonstration, liaise with the police and so forth.
So I see protests and some forms of direct action as engaging and powerful campaign tools. I want to see more localised campaigning which involve more people from across our communities, I want NUS to support students’ unions put together the best and most effective campaigning strategies and I want NUS itself to be an organisation ready and willing to deliver national demonstrations when the time is right.
5) What are your thoughts on the occupations that swept many university campuses across the country?
The key to achieving maximum impact during campaigns is to use the right tactic at the right time. So as long as it’s legal, non-violent and supported by students, I won’t condemn the use of any tactic. I have always felt that NUS has to be member led, and the best way for members to set the direction for the student movement is through their own students’ unions democracy. So if the local union supports an occupation I think it’s right that NUS does too. It is not NUS’ place to undermine local democracy. Where students’ unions have reached a democratic decision, it is not the place of NUS to in any way undermine it.
6) 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?
I have been involved in countless occasions since November where I’ve helped form brand new students’ unions in Colleges and Sixth Forms across the country. To say that these young people have all of a sudden become politicised in untrue – many of the students I’ve met whilst helping them set up a students’ union have been politicised for ages but have just never felt empowered to be able to do anything.
So I see the task for NUS therefore I how we empower young people to self-organise, which is something the whole student movement has expertise in and thus something to offer. I want to roll out a national programme involving local students’ unions in school Citizenship programmes as a way of utilising the creativity and unleashing the potential of emerging younger activists.
There is a broader issue here too around NUS’ membership criteria. We can no longer continue to expect a diversifying student body to fit within our rigid and often inaccessible structures. We’re engaging more College and Sixth Form’s than we ever have done, but I believe I am best placed to lead a debate within NUS on what we have to do to fit around students, not expect things to just happen the other way around.
7) How would you describe your overall strategy for defeating the Government’s agenda?
I want to use students’ union’s authority on the rights of students to expose the Government’s agenda for what it is – unfair, irresponsible and ideological.
That means for example giving students’ unions more support in gathering evidence for select committee submissions. It means having a proactive media strategy, so NUS and students’ unions are creating the news, rather than responding to it the whole time. It means running national campaigns which activate and involve even more people and it means extending our reach to our members that can not engage in traditional models of representation.
The key to moving NUS forward is by maintaining the pressure we put on politicians last May right up to the next general election. They have to know that we will not forget every single Lib Dem that broke their pledge on fees, they have to know that students are, and will continue, to be angry at an agenda with nothing to say except to restrict opportunity.
To do this I will deliver a radical new approach to NUS priority campaign on education funding which will expose the Coalition’s proposals as disproportionately targeting low-income families particularly by introducing new levels of fees for adults with low level qualifications, excluding vulnerable groups from free ESOL training in addition to the injustices of cuts to further and higher education budgets.
8 ) Would you link up with trade unions as part of a broader movement against the cuts agenda? If so, how?
When I helped form the save EMA campaign, I did so with the backing of six national trade unions. What is brilliant about that campaign is the visible benefits of running a massive national campaign in partnership. I think a lasting effect of the work that has been done in that area is the relationships that have formed between trade union branches and students’ unions – which I am determined to help maintain as NUS President.
As ever, there will be inevitable differences from time to time and as I have said earlier there has to come a point where we accept political differences but recognise the common goal.
Our relationship particularly with the TUC over the coming year is vital. Over 500,000 jobs are set to be lost in the public sector alone so it is right that we support the trade unions as a united voice against cuts.
9) What reforms would you support to make the NUS more democratic?
If I get elected President one of the very first things I want to achieve is to establish a specialist commission into how NUS can change in the short and long term to represent the students we currently find difficult. I’m particularly interested in what we can do to give the rising number of work based learners a voice within NUS. Trainee teachers, nurses, placement students all face similar challenges to students on apprenticeships, so I want to know what it is they have to say in the short term, and how we bring those people in to NUS democracy in the long term. This will throw up some uncomfortable home truths for NUS and we’ll have to answer some difficult questions. How can we make National Conference more democratic for example by involving people who can not physically be there? By heavily involving students’ unions in this review, particularly those with existing best practice, we can deliver a stronger NUS whilst maintaining our democratic values.
10) Some regard you as Aaron Porter’s continuity candidate. How would you respond to this?
Aaron has led NUS at a time of incredible change within the education sector and has delivered a record breaking year for the student movement and I am proud to have served on his team throughout his time as President.
Being the VPFE in NUS is a somewhat unique position but it does mean that I have a new angle to bring to the movement that we would otherwise not engage with.
Am I a ‘continuity candidate’? Absolutely not. My vision for NUS is one which takes the issue of education funding to a new level, totally changes our approach to widening participation, takes a proactive stance against unemployment and makes NUS the forward looking campaigning organisation we need to be.