At the National Union of Students' annual conference, Jim Murphy, 26, the union's president in Scotland, became the first non-sitting candidate to win on the first ballot.
Mr Murphy will take over at a crucial time. Student grants, frozen since the introduction of loans in 1991, are to be cut by 10 per cent a year over the next three years. Students are split on whether to fight the proposals by direct action or reasoned argument.
Students have gathered in Blackpool fresh from what Mr Murphy describes as 'the biggest victory in the history of the NUS'. In 1992, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, announced plans to shut 'the last closed shop in Britain'. Instead of marches and occupations, the union lobbied Parliament, pointing at its role in providing students with basic services. A clutch of Tory peers agreed and scuppered Mr Patten's Education Bill.
Mr Murphy hopes a similar approach can work for the fight over grant cuts. 'I want to build on that success. The realist tendency has taken over from the revolutionary. It's realism that saw us through against the Education Bill and it's realism that's giving us the guts to reform our structures.'
Reform of the conference is key to the restructuring that will attract students back to the union. 'We spend pounds 300,000 at this conference, that's 10 per cent of our annual income on four days in Blackpool. That's 300 times more than what we spend on anti-fascism.'
The NUS's national executive yesterday won backing for reducing the number of delegates attending from one for every 1,000 students to one for every 5,000. Mr Murphy hopes the changes could halve the conference bill.
Colleges that want to acquire the title of university will be given much closer inspection in future, Mr Patten said yesterday.
Aspiring colleges would have to show that they had maintained high standards in all their degree courses over the past two or three years. They would also have to prove that they had the strategy and resources to sustain those standards in the future.