Promising legislation to establish voluntary student union membership, Mr Patten drew warm applause from the party faithful in Brighton when he said that having abolished the closed shop everywhere else, there was no reason why the Government should allow it to linger on in colleges and universities.
The NUS, which ranks high in the demonology of the Tory party as a publicly financed nest of left-wing vipers, has survived 20 years of threats from Conservative ministers and MPs. First mention of it yesterday drew a prolonged hiss from party representatives.
Mr Patten tapped a similar vein with the familiar denunciation of the '1960s theorists' and the 'trendy left' who, he said, still dominated education.
'Most students who go on to college or to university do so because they want a good education and a qualification that they can use to get on in life,' he said. 'It's only a few who get involved through the NUS in supporting dubious causes of no interest to the great majority of students.
'I suppose in a free country it is their privilege. But why should the taxpayer have to pay for it?'
The universities warned that introducing voluntary membership of campus unions, which run a wide variety of student services, from bars and canteens to sports clubs, would create a wasteful bureaucracy to administer.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, believe campus unions are doing a good job in providing services and argue that students' interests should be represented.
All students are automatically members of their campus unions, most of which are affiliated to the NUS. Four - Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Imperial College, London - are not affiliated but are still opposed to voluntary membership.
A vice-chancellors' and principals spokesman said that it might be possible for students to opt out of political activities, as Sheffield University union had proposed, or for unions to fund activities from private income.
Lorna Fitzsimons, president of the NUS, said: 'It has always been our aim as a confederation of students' unions to preserve and extend choice and freedom of expression.'
For 20 years the issue has proved a minefield for a succession of Conservative ministers since the then Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, proposed sweeping changes to student union finances.
During that time the NUS has been able to rely on the support of university vice-chancellors and polytechnic directors, as well as the legal and parliamentary complexities of taking action.
Although the NUS has long been an irritant to Tory MPs who see it as using public money to finance anti-government campaigns and give loony left agitators a platform, the union has been able to demonstrate that only a tiny fraction of its pounds 2m budget is spent on political campaigns.
The latest government review of student unions, ordered by Kenneth Baker after he too had promised MPs that he would act on the NUS 'closed shop', found pounds 30,000 devoted to campaigns. However these were high-profile campaigns, against the poll tax and student loans.
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