It seems like a lifetime ago now, but back in May 2010 Nick Clegg had become the fresh-faced media darling of British politics almost overnight. His impressive performance in the pre-general election debates endeared him to an electorate unimpressed with the traditional choice which lay before them. Meanwhile, a categorical commitment that his party would vote against any proposed increase in tuition fees made the Liberal Democrats the student party of choice. The pledge went some way to securing the party a place in government.
Fast forward six months, and the first of a series of demonstrations against an unprecedented hike in tuition fees and planned cuts to education funding is taking place in central London. Tens of thousands of furious students have descended on the capital to lay bare their anger at being betrayed by politicians. Activists are deeply concerned that the reforms will irreversibly harm the prospects of the next generation.
In the eyes of many, the legitimate political point that was made that day was forgotten amid the violence at Millbank. What started out as a peaceful occupation of the lobby of Tory HQ quickly mutated into a violent melee of flying objects and smashed windows. It was to no avail; the government pushed through their reforms to higher education, and September saw the first cohort of undergraduates paying £9,000 per year filter through the doors of lecture theatres across the country.
Saturday will mark two years to the day since ‘Demo 2010’. Then, the worry-etched face of the National Union of Students was Aaron Porter. Now, there is a different man at the helm ahead of a new series of demonstrations.
A former Physics student of Heriot-Watt University, Liam Burns succeeded Porter as President of the NUS at what he says was “clearly a difficult time.” Porter had been the subject of immense criticism in the wake of the Millbank protests, and Burns’ ascension to the top job was the direct result of a decision taken by his predecessor to cave in to the pressure.
“Aaron was in an incredibly difficult position,” Burns explains. “I don’t think some Cabinet MPs have put up with as much pressure in their careers as Aaron had to cope with at that time. It was exceptional.”
“There was a lot of internal criticism, and some quite divisive rhetoric was used on the hard left, who were despicable in their treatment of Aaron. There was a lot of legitimate criticism, but the way that was espoused – particularly at the demonstration in Manchester – Aaron suffered what I would only call bullying.”
Nonetheless, Burns remains critical of Porter’s handling of the 2010 protests, and admits that he would have run against Porter for the presidency had he elected to stand once again. “It would be disingenuous for me to say that [he coped] completely well across the board. Part of the reason why I ran is that I think we should have made some different calls. Do I know what it would be like to have been in that moment? No, I just think there are decisions that should have been made differently.”
“This stuff was a cloud over the organisation, and I think at some point Aaron said look, I need to not run,” he continues. “Part of the reason for me running – part of the narrative – was, this organisation can’t only be one person.”
Now well over a year into his tenure, Burns believes that he has succeeded in preventing the NUS from becoming a “divided movement.”
With the biggest student demonstration in two years fast approaching, Burns is anxious to avoid the fate of his predecessor.
On 21 November, #Demo2012 – stylised to reflect the huge extent to which Twitter has permeated the student consciousness in recent times – will see students from up and down the country take the government to task on their education cuts. He is absolutely determined that there will be no repeat of the violence which marred the protests of 2010.
“Our members are perfectly clear of the expectations that we have. Our NEC has agreed that we’re not going to support any form of violence,” says Burns. “For me the reason that violence will never form a part of this campaign is that for one, it doesn’t make sense tactically. You want public sympathy on your side. Violence is not going to engender public sympathy. We want voters to say, ‘this is what we’ll vote on’. When politicians knock on their doors, we want people to say that education funding, employment, youth unemployment are important issues – and they’re not going to do that in reaction to violence.”
To some extent, however, Burns is beholden to events. “One of the things I can’t do is stop any arsehole from coming along on the day, and that’s true of any action we have in London. I’m not naïve enough to think, though, that we shouldn’t mitigate the chance of risk.” In mitigation, the organisers were determined that the route of the demonstration should not “purposely antagonise the chance of higher tensions.”
“Some of the criticism is that it’s not going past enough iconic, ‘locus of power’ type places,” Burns relays. “I don’t think that’s true, but nonetheless I was certainly not going to do a route that went past Millbank or Whitehall.”
Burns’ honesty is impressive, and in many ways makes him the ideal man to take on what must at times feel like an impossible job. The NUS is structured so that its annual conference, rather than the leadership itself, decides on policy, and Burns reveals that he would not have personally chosen to go about the forthcoming campaign in this way.
“Would this be the way we would plan a campaign? Probably not, but that is what conference wanted,” he admits. “It’s taken a lot of work, because when the vote passed at conference back in April… it wasn’t an overwhelming majority by any means. One of the challenges at the time was that the campaign for the demo had come from a certain part of the movement, and we needed to decide how to get people on board with why it’s the right action to take”.
Despite cynicism in some quarters, Burns is optimistic that #Demo2012 will be a success. Recalling previous demonstrations, he suggests that, “even the deepest sceptics of the tactic of the demo knew that when people got on that bus, whether they were there because they were genuinely angry or because they wanted a big day out in London, they came off far more invested in their students union, they saw that there was a bigger picture and were angry about it and wanted to make change, whether it was about education funding or otherwise – they had become activists.”
He continues, “that’s what part of the demonstration is about – galvanising people, getting them angry, creating activists. And we have so many other campaign tactics that we want to use.”
“Will the demo, in and of itself, isolated as a tactic, do anything? No, of course it won’t, that’s part of what we’ve been saying to our members. We understand that there’s not a parliamentary mechanism to influence at this moment in time. But in general, is our campaign work changing things? Yes.”
Burns is clearly convinced by the power of the organisation that he heads. It might sound like a flippant question, but given that some have queried the effectiveness of past NUS campaigns, I have to ask: what exactly is the point of the NUS?
“The movement is imperative, because when I say NUS I’m not just talking about the people in this building, I’m talking about students’ unions. I guess the point is that if NUS didn’t exist, you’d have to create it,” he says.
“If we did not exist, you would have to expect your sabbatical officers to go off and try to lobby [Universities Minister] David Willetts, parliamentarians, the funding council – all of these different bodies that impact upon student life. That means they are not on your campus, not doing things locally, and not influencing your local decision makers.”
Speaking of Willetts, I turn the conversation to the current government’s higher education policy. There have been two central planks to Willetts’ vision for universities: increased funding and greater competition. Though Burns is keen to point out that he likes Willetts personally, he is in vehement disagreement with the government on both scores.
Last month, David Willetts told The Mancunion that “total funding for higher education is increasing.” Burns accepts that this is notionally correct, but counters, “increasing for who? He’s absolutely right to say that universities, net, have more money. But this is all about accountancy smokescreens. Has the deficit gone down? Yes, but has the national debt gone up, or will it go up? Yes, massively, because you can’t take something that costs for every pound loaned at least 30p, and some commentators are saying up to 50p – that’s the debt you never get back in the end.”
“The other important bit is that ideologically we reject the idea of education being a consumer product. It doesn’t work for anyone,” Burns argues. “There’s no evidence to suggest [that competition improves quality]. There has been no increase in satisfaction in the National Student Survey. There has only been a skyrocketing of complaints to the office of the independent adjudicator. That doesn’t sounds like quality to me – that just sounds like trying to produce consumers in a system that consumers can’t control… this is not an actual market, it’s not as if you can take your money and go elsewhere. You can’t take a lecture up to the Vice Chancellor and say, I’m sorry, this one’s broken, can I have another one?”
It is fair to say that Burns’ politics are far removed from those of the current government. I note that he is the latest in a long line of NUS Presidents to be paid up, Labour Party members. All five of his immediate predecessors have at some point or another been actively involved in Labour Party politics, whilst past Presidents include Stephen Twigg, Jim Murphy, Charles Clarke, Phil Woolas and Jack Straw – all prominent Labour ministers at one time or another. I put it to Liam Burns that there is a pattern emerging, and he accepts that, “there’s no smoke without fire.”
“There’s ‘union’ in our name. We believe in education, social justice – it’s not surprising that the vast majority of those of us who are party aligned would articulate into Labour.” Still, he argues that the personal politics of whoever holds the position of NUS President is more or less irrelevant. “What is absolutely right is that there’s transparency – if I ever came out and said, this £6,000 policy by Ed Miliband is a brilliant idea, when clearly it’s not, you would rightly have no confidence in me.”
On the subject of George Galloway’s reported defamation lawsuit against the NUS, Burns refused to openly comment. He did, however, discuss other student issues being discussed in the national media.
He tells me: “the idea of Carnage running Pimps and Hoes, or ‘Slutdrop’… these things that are just deeply inappropriate. I think now – and I wouldn’t have said this five years ago – there is absolutely something to be debated in the students’ union in terms of what we tolerate regarding the treatment of women on campus.”
“I know for a fact that you’ll have people reading this going, ‘oh, fun police, what are you talking about? Pimps and Hoes is just a bit of fun.’ Well no, it’s not. It’s women being put in a position where they should be somehow defined by sexuality and sexual acts.”
I end our conversation by broaching the subject of personal ambition. Clearly, the title ‘NUS President’ is a fillip for anyone’s CV – was this a factor in his decision to take the job? “Yes, I’m sure it was. I think it would be disingenuous to say that you don’t look at these things,” he admits.
“But it’s not the reason I do it, because I can assure you I’m paid a shit wage, I work ridiculous hours as do everyone in this building, and as do sabbatical student officers. The idea that someone would be President of a Students’ Union purely on the back of career prospects is ridiculous, because the opportunity cost of doing it is massive. You do it because you’re passionate and you want to change things for students. But nonetheless I’m going to talk about this job in my interviews, I can assure you!”