* with apologies to Johnny Cash.
It would not have been an easy year for anyone to have been President of the NUS. Aaron Porter has certainly had a difficult time of it, and there will doubtless be plenty of celebrating now he has announced he will not seek a second term (see his full statement on Liberal Conspiracy here).
This is fairly big news. Porter will be the first NUS President since 1969 not to stand for a second term. It’s been clear, however, that he’s not had the full support of the student movement for a while. Owen Jones, again on Liberal Conspiracy, has written a very good piece on Porter’s failings. It took the NUS far too long to support any of the protests that followed the November demonstration against tuition fees, reflected in the fact that Porter was heckled at an anti-fees protest in January.
In this context, it’s odd that Porter should say in his statement that:
If I have one criticism of this year, it would be that we have not been quick enough to talk about our achievements – and I hope we can pause for a moment to remedy this.
I think anyone must have a certain amount of cojones to say of themselves, “the only thing I did wrong this year was to not talk enough about how fantastic I’ve been. If only I had done that, I wouldn’t be leaving now”.
It’s hard to know what Porter was thinking when he wrote that. Sadly, as with so many of the NUS’s blunders over the past few months, it seems he wasn’t really thinking that much at all.
When he first became NUS president, Porter announced he wanted to lobby politicians to change policy, not just hold demonstrations. It’s a point that comes over clearly in this Observer interview conducted soon after his election, in which he says “if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken”.
I have no problem with political lobbying. It’s Parliament that makes the laws, and you need to be able to influence them if you want policy changing. That’s just common sense. However, this strategy seems to have backfired in two ways.
First, it led to Porter, by his own admission, “dithering” and being “spineless” in his lack of support for student demonstrations and student occupations. A student movement needs both political lobbying and grassroots-style campaigning, and under Porter’s Presidency the NUS tended too much to the former.
Also, the attempt to lobby politicians ended up with the NUS being burnt very badly. In December came revelations that the NUS had “urged” the government to cut student grants to the poorest students, which came on the eve of more protests in favour of a free Higher Education in December. Porter defended himself by saying the NUS had suggested no such policy, instead saying that:
We were asked by [Vince] Cable to demonstrate how fees could be kept at current levels and on the basis of his request we produced modelling to show how that could be done.
In other words, the NUS was asked to demonstrate how universities could be funded, given both the cuts and if fees were kept at the same level. Instead of saying to the government, “that’s ridiculous, you shouldn’t be cutting funding for universities anyway you daft ‘aypeths”, the NUS made up a funding model by cutting the amount of money in student grants. This was then leaked to embarrass the student movement.
The loan gets written off after 30 years (currently 25)- the vastly increased numbers of graduates that will never pay the loan off are in fact what makes the system relatively progressive
As well as this:
Much has been made of the Government’s 80% cuts to teaching budgets; of course, whilst thats true, there has not been an 80% cut to the overall Universities budget- in fact the subsidy has been moved into this state backed, loan based voucher scheme.
In other words, Aaron Porter has tried to play politics, and lost.
What happens now for the NUS? Surely they must reinstate their opposition to fees, full stop. A slogan of:
What do we want? Progressive contributions to our higher education using a fair graduate tax! When do we want it? As soon as is politically expedient!
Isn’t exactly going to set the world alight.
As I argued above, the NUS needs to unite political lobbying with active campaigning. You must have both in order to effect real change.