'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.
Thursday 07 October 2010
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.
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