Once a hot-bed of far-left politicking, the National Union of Students is getting real. Under the presidency of Wes Streeting, 26, a Labour Party supporter and veteran student activist, the NUS has reformed its structures, eradicated its debt and even embraced the principle that students should pay tuition fees.
That puts them to the right of the Liberal Democrats who have recently reaffirmed their commitment to free higher education for all. Streeting knows the NUS's position is controversial and that some of his members won't like it. "But it's my responsibility – and the responsibility of the NUS – to be honest," he says.
"The next fees debate is not going to be fought or won on whether graduates pay a contribution to the cost of their education. As much as many of us still believe in the notion that students should not have to pay, the reality is that both major parties are committed to them paying, so the NUS has a choice – do we go in all guns flying with our traditional demands or do we get involved in a debates about fees and the funding of higher education?
"We have set ourselves on the more ambitious path, which is to seek to have an impact on how the graduate contribution is collected and to say that we want to halt the development of a market in higher education and bring the variable fee down."
This year the review into the £3,000 top-up or variable fees introduced under Tony Blair will get under way. David Lammy, the higher education minister, announced this month that the review may start in the summer but indicated that it would not be completed before the next General Election, thus avoiding this issue becoming an election football. The NUS, however, wants a debate on people's doorsteps – and is hoping to influence that debate.
"We're going to be putting a lot of pressure on parliamentary candidates to get them to set out their positions," says Streeting.
In 1998 Blair was almost defeated in the parliamentary debate on top-up fees, so he offered sweeteners such as the cap of £3,000 and the promise of a review. Now a number of vice chancellors, particularly of the more prestigious universities, which are able to charge more, are calling for the cap to be lifted so that they can charge as much as £6,000 or £7,000 a year.
That makes the NUS see red because they think it introduces a market into higher education, and will mean some institutions being much better funded than others. They have already produced one booklet, "Broke & Broken" on the financing of higher education and later this year are planning another outlining a new funding scheme, including plans for a graduate tax.
"We're fighting for an alternative funding system," says Streeting. "We want NUS representatives on the review group and we want the review to be open to alternatives to the current system."
So much of the case for fees has been predicated on the argument that graduates earn more, therefore they should make a contribution, says Streeting. But that contribution should be linked to how much individual graduates earn, he believes. Those who earn big money, should pay a big contribution, those earning less should pay less. That, in a nutshell, is a graduate tax.
Streeting, a Cambridge-educated history graduate who was brought up by a single mum in Stepney, east London, and who attended a comprehensive school that was in special measures, is standing again for president at the NUS's annual conference next month. "I have been a national president who gets the job done and who listens and leads effectively,"he says.
"My first term was about dragging the NUS kicking and screaming into the 21st century to make it more effective and representative." He is referring here to the consitutional reforms that his predecessor Gemma Tumelty failed to get through the annual conference last year. With a bit of tweaking and some good luck, Streeting encountered much less opposition and the reforms are now in place.
They should enable the union to keep control of its finances, which in Tumelty's day ran at £1.4m a year, and to concentrate on meeting the needs of ordinary students.
The Socialist Workers Party will still figure large at NUS conferences and motions on Gaza will continue to arouse intense passion, but the union is expected to be taken more seriously by the Government as a result of these reforms than it has been for decades. And that, Streeting believes, is in the interests of his 7 million members.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies