Almost as soon as we published our last blog detailing the inadequacies and shortcomings of Aaron Porter’s leadership of the National Union of Students it was announced that he will be stepping down at the next election in April.
In a controversial message to NUS member, Porter proudly claims he is confident he could have won a re-election campaign but has decided that a fresh leader will be best to “lead the student movement into that new phase.” Unsurprisingly given recent calls for him to clarify his position on tuition fees and support the more active student protesters in calling for them to be scrapped, Porter is vague about what the “new phase” will actually entail.
Instead he focuses on past achievements, claiming that “we’ve kick started a wave of student action, brought the coalition to its knees, and we’ve shaped the public debate on education in an unprecedented fashion.” Many student members keen to see the end of Porter’s reign will be quick to counter these claims, as he has been widely criticised for his ineffectual leadership during a time of crisis. They would argue that it was the actions of the coalition government, not Porter’s leadership, that kick-started the wave of student protests, and that the politicisation of the younger generation has been achieved by activist groups like the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts and their outspoken members such as Michael Chessum in spite of rather than as a result of Porter’s actions.
The student movement has been divided by these criticisms of Porter, with many thousands of students feeling let down by his failure to support protests and marches following the violence at Millbank, and others feeling that his conciliatory attitude towards recent tuition fees talks was too defeatist. A great number of students still believe passionately in the importance of large-scale public protests against the controversial coalition policy to raise tuition fees to £9000 in 2012, whilst some have remained loyal to Porter, claiming that these more militant and extreme voices risk bringing a bad reputation to the union and damaging the credibility of the movement as a whole.
What will be very interesting will be to see who will succeed Porter as President, and whether it will be a more extreme leadership that encourages the new activism of student politics. Will Michael Chessum, for example, step into Porter’s shoes to encourage students towards a new, more organised wave of protests?
The big challenge for the new student leader will be to decide quickly upon a plan of action as we head towards the implementation of the new, higher tuition fees, with much government support for access to education for underprivileged students, such as university grants and the Education Maintenance Allowance, having been axed. Whether or not the student movement, under fresh leadership, will be able to effect any concrete political change remains to be seen.