In 2008, the National Union of Students took a gamble. A gamble which saw one of the most important changes to its policy in the history of the institution. Having been long time advocates of the argument that Higher Education should be free, their current President Wes Streeting swept into power two years ago on a wave a change which saw the NUS adopt a new policy: to resist further hikes to the cost of education, to accept (at least temporarily) that top-up fees were a fact of Higher Education and to seek a new system of fees which would provide a more progressive vision for the future.
Despite promises that the policy would increase the reputation of the Union; that politicians would take it more seriously and that this would enable it to take its place in top-tier discussions with the government, the policy still had its detractors.
Factions within the Union, particularly those located politically to the hard left, have continued to vocally support the fight for free education for all, putting forward rival presidential candidates, both last year and last week, to counter both Wes’s re-election in 2009 and the election of his spiritual successor, Aaron Porter, who was elected by a landslide last Wednesday at the NUS conference in Newcastle. Although both campaigns gained a moderate proportion of votes, neither Rob Owen or Bell Ribeiro-Addy were able to garner the support required.
2010, however, will potentially mark a dramatic step change for the future of Higher Education, University funding and, ultimately, the NUS. With the Browne Review on HE reporting later this year, and an uncertain General Election looming, it is not clear in which direction the funding of University education will head. Neither the Labour or the Conservative parties have committed to a plan for the future, although a rise in fees is strongly rumoured.
Most NUS members would view such a move as spelling disaster for students across the country. However, for the Streeting supporting members of the NUS, this would pose a major dilemma- their strategy of appeasement would, ultimately, be seen by those clamouring for free education as a failure, a compromise too far which allowed politicians to take advantage of their change of heart and wield the knife. In short, hard left students would be sure to see the current leadership as having entertained a gamble which had demonstrated it could not pay off.
These developments could see a very different atmosphere at next year’s NUS conference. If Aaron is not careful, and his successor is unable to convince students from across the country that the pursuit of moderate compromise can be defended, the fight for free education could re-emerge from the background and a new faction, formed around the policy of free education, could take the leadership of our National Union.
Following what would then be two major policy changes during a three year period, the Union would appear to politicians and the media as both weak and indecisive, incapable of presenting a sound argument on behalf of students and, therefore, redundant as an organisation worth taking seriously.
However, should the government of tomorrow adopt parts of the current NUS strategy, especially their blueprint for a ‘Graduate Tax’ which would see education paid for retrospectively, not on entry, the more moderate approach could achieve a stunning further victory, one which will see it maintain a grapple hold on the leadership of the NUS for a number of years to come and which may sweep Aaron into a second year in office.
So this is it, NUS. Make or break, sink or swim. Whatever happens, it will be a fight for your life, one which, on behalf of students, you cannot afford to lose.