Yet more controversy has erupted this week surrounding the National Union of Students and its President Aaron Porter, after the publication of a document on their website encouraging student leaders to engage in meaningful discussions with university executives over tuition fee rises.
The memo, entitled ‘Briefing Note on University Fee Setting Discussions’, seems to have been taken down from the website following the uproar. Students and individual union leaders alike protested at the ‘soft’ and ‘spineless’ position taken by the NUS, as the memo seemed to encourage them to capitulate to the inevitability of the new tuition fees policy, and instead of protesting the rise in fees, to try to engage and reason with individual university authorities to keep fees as manageable and as clear as possible.
A confused document in both ideology and grammar, on sentence read “Recognising that simply campaigning for a low fee might not generate the results you require (especially inside the Russell and 1994 group), NUS would recommend you engage in detailed discussions with councils and execs to discuss the issues at stake before engaging in detailed discussions.”
The suggestion seemed to be that simply marching in with a strong anti-fee agenda would do little to deter university councils from fee rises, whilst being seen to be reasonable and debating the points may have a more successful impact. Yet Porter seems to be completely missing the point. It is an unfortunate fact that the government decision to obliterate state university funding will force universities to recoup lost income from higher tuition fees in order to survive. This means that individual lobbying at university level to try to reduce fees is attacking the innocent pawn of the monster rather than the heart of the monster itself.
As Oxford University has already explained, the enormous higher education cuts mean that they will be forced to charge £8000 tuition fees simply to recoup their usual level of funding, and in order to add to that the government’s required level of access support and bursaries, they will be required to raise fees still further to £9000. So were the Oxford student union leader to campaign against the university itself to set fees at a lower rate, it would merely risk cuts to staff, university buildings and resources, and be an attack on the quality and value of the education provided by that institution.
Hence it could be argued that by capitulating to Porter’s limp plan, students would in fact be aiding embattled deputy leader Nick Clegg in his newest ruse to deflect criticism by trying to imply that it is somehow universities themselves who are at fault for charging such high fees, as described in our previous blog.
It is for this reason that students and activists across the country believe it is still urgent and important to continue to campaign at a national level for a fairer and more progressive fees system such as a graduate tax. They believe that despite the passing of the coalition government’s policy it is essential to keep up the pressure and the public voice of protest to make it very clear to politicians and populace alike that unfair access to university and higher education for the rich will not be tolerated. You can understand their frustration at Porter’s lack of understanding and support for the cause.
Since the very first emergence of violence at the Millbank protest last year, the NUS has been conspicuously absent from protests and marches, as Porter seemed to writhe and dither about how best to protect the image and respectability of the Union. As many argued at the time, he was right to distance himself and the Union from any incidence of violent protest, but instead of clearly and decisively doing this by publicly declaring that the insurgents were utterly separate from the meaningful and peaceful protests, instead he chose to utterly sever NUS support of the protests. This not only robbed the movement of political clout and backing when it needed NUS support the most, but also aided the media and political frenzy of criticism of the ‘violent protests’ which guided the public towards an assumption that all student protesters were yobs and vandals. The estrangement of the NUS and Porter served to hugely strengthen this image as they sought to keep their own images squeaky clean (with, some have argued, their own future political careers rather than their current Union responsibilities firmly in mind.)
Further muddying the waters of their position, the NUS memo also seemed to support aspects of the tuition fees hike, with several paragraphs setting out the “relatively progressive” merits of the scheme. Porter comes across as a headless chicken running helplessly backwards and forwards between two completely opposite viewpoints and forcing students to beg him to “make his position clear.” Meanwhile individual student leaders such as Rahul Mansigani have criticised him heavily for now seeming to describe as “progressive a scheme that the NUS, Cambridge University Student Union and students up and down the country campaigned against.”
It is rather ironic that Porter’s major criticism of the new system is not that it is financially unfair and will hugely disadvantage poorer students, but that it is “baffling, short-sighted and chaotic.” A charge it seems many in the student movement would be more than happy to level at Porter himself.