'I sense an appetite for student action': The latest NUS president is ready to do battle

Aaron Porter is more canny politician than long-haired revolutionary. But with funding cuts looming, he's ready for a fight.

We meet on College Green, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Aaron Porter, the 25-year-old president of the National Union of Students, is just dashing from a crucial student union meeting he was chairing to an audience with David Willetts, the Universities Secretary.

Porter can't talk about what that meeting will cover, but it doesn't take a genius to guess it may have something to do with former BP boss Lord Browne's review of student finance, due to be published next week. The meeting with the minister is symptomatic of the way the NUS is back at the top table when it comes to being in the know. Only recently, Porter was the first NUS president since 1968 to be invited to address the Universities UK conference – the umbrella body which represents all the nation's vice-chancellors.

It is, he reflects, the most hectic period of his life. He is in the middle of a 24-day spell during which he will have not a single day off, and by the end of which he will have attended various party conferences and grappled with the student response to the Browne report's recommendations.

"There's so much going on," he says – but with a hint of enthusiasm in his voice rather than tiredness. "There's Browne, and the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the relationship between the two. I don't want to waste a single day when we can be making the case to fund students adequately."

He is committed to fighting any plans to increase fees for students, and realises he will have a battle on his hands, as Browne is expected to recommend raising the present fee level from £3,290 a year to nearer £7,000. The committee of inquiry is also said to be recommending that some elite universities be free to charge more, prov-ided they give cast-iron guarantees to provide bursaries to meet the extra cost for students from disadvantaged homes.

His target in the drive to defeat any such proposals will be the Liberal Democrat MPs, all of whom signed a pledge during this year's general election campaign to vote against any fees increase.

The agreement setting up the Coalition Government gives them a carte blanche to abstain on any fees vote, as the Conservatives recognise the differences between the two parties. That will not be enough to satisfy students, though. For one thing, a mass abstention by the Liberal Democrats would effectively give the green light to the fees proposals.

"I think we can deliver a better outcome for students despite the testing economic climate," Porter says. "Surely the need for investment in our future is self-evident? I'm very clear that we want to work with the Liberal Democrats and let them be on the side of the students.

"I also suggest that they should expect students and student unions to expose each and every Liberal Democrat who breaks that pledge. We already have plans to do that – although I don't want to get to that situation."

The NUS plans to use new "right-to-recall" legislation planned by the Government to turn up the heat on Liberal Democrat MPs. Under this package, first floated at the height of the MPs' expenses scandal, it would be possible to force a sitting MP to a by-election if enough electors sign a petition claiming he or she betrayed the electorate. "It was introduced to deal with financial impropriety, but we shall be testing whether it can be used in cases where MPs deliberately betray their electorate," Porter says. Even if the students failed to get the requisite backing to force a by-election, or found themselves overruled in trying to use the new legislation, the strategy would generate some rather unwanted bad publicity for MPs in their constituencies. Many of the Liberal Democrats' strongest seats are in university towns.

Labour had strong support among students when it embarked on its 13-year rule in 1997. "That was shattered by the introduction of fees, and then top-up fees," says Porter "Over the last decade Labour's support amongst students and in student unions started to decline and transferred to the Liberal Democrats."

Under his presidency, students will use the power of persuasion to defeat fee rises. They are already scenting victory in the Labour Party, with the advent of Ed Miliband as party leader. In the Labour leadership campaign, Miliband stood on a ticket of scrapping tuition fees and introducing a graduate tax; this would be a complete policy turnaround for the party.

Porter adds that 192 Labour MPs signed up to the general election pledge against a fees increase. He has not given up on the idea that there may be a handful of Conservative rebels, although only three signed the pledge.

He does not rule out more militant action by students, such as strikes and sit-ins, though this would most likely emerge at a more local level. "I think that if students felt that they were going to be trodden on once again, then there may be an appetite for there to be more action, and that could be more militant than before. We will use every weapon in our armoury. Students are already paying their fair share, and we can't ask them to pay more."

He is critical of the role vice-chancellors have played in the past year while the Browne review has been collecting evidence: "They have been too quick to press the case for more student contributions, rather than fight for the funding we've got."

He is also critical of them for failing to find savings that could be made within individual universities without resorting to redundancies and reducing student contact time. "I think they could be less conservative at looking at how they carry out their administration and technology costs," he says.

On the NUS front, though, he is also backing a national demonstration against the cuts in further and higher education spending, planned for 10 November in London.

A product of Wilson's School, a grammar school in the south London borough of Sutton, Porter cut his teeth in union politics in the campaign against the introduction of top-up fees five years ago, when he brought 150 students down from Leicester University – where he was studying English literature – to a demonstration against their introduction.

His, though, has not been the traditional route to power of a union president. Despite being a Labour supporter, he stood on an independent ticket for the presidency, and won. He is almost certain to stand for a second term next year.

"I think there will be unfinished business," he says. "I think we will still be in the middle of our campaigns against the cuts and fees, and I'd like to see them through."

There is a hint of regret as he is asked about what he does to wind down when he is not on union business: he doesn't have much time for other activities. "I like reading, particularly plays. Anything from Ancient Greek tragedy to modern-day," he said. "I'm a big fan of sport – cricket and football – but I don't have as much time for them now. My dream would be to be at a test match between England and South Africa on Boxing Day in Cape Town, with the backdrop of Table Mountain – if I could afford the flights."

As to the future, he says: "I have a passion for education and the role it can play in transforming individuals' lives. I'd like to do something in that direction." He pauses, though. "At the moment, the campaigning bug has got me."

Expect, therefore, many more days and nights like the hectic stretch of 24 he is currently embarked on.

Past student leaders

Aaron Porter is the latest in an illustrious line of NUS presidents, dating back to 1922. Among the best-known of his predecessors are:

* Fred Jarvis (1952-54), later general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

* Jack Straw (1969-71), standing on the ticket of the Radical Student Alliance. Latterly a Labour Foreign Secretary.

* Charles Clarke (1975-77), who went on to become a Labour Home Secretary.

* Sue Slipman 1977-78), first woman president of the NUS.

* Trevor Phillips (1978-80), who went on to become head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

* David Aaronovitch (1980-82), now a columnist for The Times.

* Neil Stewart (1982-84), political secretary to Neil Kinnock as leader of the Opposition leader in the early 1990s.

* Phil Woolas (1984-86), Immigration Minister under Gordon Brown as Prime Minister.

* Stephen Twigg (1990-92), former Schools Minister who caused the 'moment' of the 1997 election by beating Michael Portillo.

* Lorna Fitzsimons (1992-94), minister in the Blair government.

* Jim Murphy (1994-96), also minister in the last Labour government.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
London's New Year's Eve fireworks event is going to be ticketed this year for the first time at £10 a head

Revellers will have to pay to see New Year's Eve fireworks in London


Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?

...and the perfect time to visit them

Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Life and Style

Try putting that one on your Christmas list
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

KS2 Teacher

£105 - £120 per day + Expenses: Randstad Education Maidstone: Randstad Educat...

German & French Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are curren...

Experienced Cover Supervisors Needed

£55 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education have cover s...

**** Calling All NQT's ****

£90 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Are you a Newly Qualified Teac...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week