On Sunday Week 5, Toni Pearce, President of the National Union of Students (NUS), opened the final day of the Assembly for Change with a plea for students to stay engaged in politics. After the talk, Pearce spoke to SCAN about why she would continue to encourage student demonstrations despite withdrawing from the upcoming tuition fee protests, and would not begrudge lecturers the same right.
“Our policy and our view and our stance and our belief is that education should be free,” Pearce said, “and in fact on Friday I went to give evidence to the Universities UK student funding review, where I sat in a room full of Vice Chancellors and told them that I think education – higher education, all education – is of public value, and that we should treat it with the same kind of esteem that we treat primary and secondary education and the NHS, and that, actually, making education free is about political ambition.”
LUSU invited Pearce to speak in George Fox building as part of the inaugural Assembly for Change, which VP (Education) Joe O’Neill had organised to increase political awareness on campus. However, five days before the Assembly, Pearce declared that the NUS had withdrawn its sponsorship of an upcoming march for free higher education in London.
Pearce pointed to personal safety risks as one reason for the change of policy. She said the organisers had promised 200 stewards to guide the march but, with a fortnight to go, had not delegated any. Pearce told SCAN: “They didn’t have a named chief steward, they didn’t have any first aid or ambulances booked for the day… [and] their lost child policy was completely unacceptable – it involved broadcasting the details of children over a megaphone.”
Pearce also cited the particular threat this posed to student liberation groups. “The people who are most at risk at demonstrations tend to be black students, disabled students, LGBT students… You know, the impact it could have on international students if they were arrested would be life-destroying. So that is why I think it’s really important that we’re a principled movement and that we’re an inclusive movement and that we take everyone with us.”
Many students’ unions, including LUSU, had decided to continue the demonstration without the NUS. When asked why she was not trying to stop them, Pearce said: “I think that students’ unions can make decisions themselves, and it’s never NUS’s role to tell students’ unions what to do.
“I’m more than happy to speak to students’ unions who still want to go about what they can do and how we can help them… If people get arrested then NUS will absolutely be there to support those people because they have a right to protest. It’s just that I would have liked to have seen this protest be organised with liberation at the forefront.”
Despite the withdrawal, Pearce said the NUS remained devoted to abolishing tuition fees. She maintained: “It wouldn’t cost a huge amount of money to pay for free education… This system is costing as much as the other system used to, so £9,000 tuition fees isn’t saving the government any money. It’s costing students more money, it’s costing the taxpayer more money, because the [Resource Accounting and Budgeting] fee is so high – the amount students don’t pay back is so high.”
When questioned as to whether low repayment was caused by high tuition fees or simply by the high rate of interest charged on student loans, Pearce said: “I think the fundamental thing here is it’s about what kind of education system we want to see, because I think that the education system we all want to see should be about collaborative institutions that deliver for the public and not just for individuals.”
During her keynote speech, Pearce reminded students that demonstrating “has to be at the heart of our campaign” and encouraged them to vote, pointing out that although only 45% of 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, students alone could swing the vote in 191 constituencies in the 2015 general election.
Pearce also restated her sympathy for lecturers striking against changes to the academic pensions scheme. She continued: “I think it’s really important that we protect the pensions of the people who teach us and the people who support us, and I think that it’s absolutely right that students have the back of their lecturers.
“The best way to get the best result for students out of this is for all the parties to get around the table and find a solution. That’s what UCU want, that’s what NUS wants, I’m sure that’s what students want, and I think it’s the responsibility of the people who run the pension scheme.”
Pearce was also confident that UCU and the pension authority could reach a compromise. She pointed out that the Pensions Regulator had given the authority only 10 years to rectify their £10 billion deficit and that several universities had questioned the size of the deficit itself. Pearce told SCAN: “I think if you said they could sort the deficit out over 20 years, and you’ve got those sums right, I think there’s absolutely a way that people and get round the table and find a solution.”