No point in ‘protest for the sake of protest’

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Just weeks after two University of London institutions – Birkbeck College and the School of Oriental and African Studies – held a vote of no confidence in him, President of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, said that he felt he was still capable of leading the student movement in this difficult time for the Higher Education sector.

Aaron Porter speaking to Lancaster’s new student officers last week. — Photo by Tom Skarbek-Wazynski

On a rare visit to Lancaster, as part of the Winter Officer Conference 2011, Porter spoke of how the fight on the changes to education as we know it is not yet lost, and how he intends to lead the student movement in the remainder of his time in office.

“In my mind, the NUS has been on the front foot [with its campaign]. The important part of any successful campaign is that is has a range of activity. In my mind, there shouldn’t be protest for the sake of protest; protests should be organised when you have a clear objective and goal in mind, and that’s certainly what we had on November 10.”

Porter has faced criticism of late for the perceived slowing in the NUS’ campaign efforts, most notably felt on December 9, when MPs voted on the fees raise; the more radical, but unofficial student protest took place in Parliament Square, causing a great deal of damage, whilst the official NUS glow-stick vigil went virtually unnoticed.

Porter defended his position on forms of protest using direct action: “We haven’t signed up to every single protest that’s out there, because for some of them, we don’t believe that they have been properly organised or that they’re safe for the participants or for the general public. I think it’s right for the NUS to be distant from some protests that we believe to be organised by a violent minority, but we have supported the vast majority of them.”

This position has, however, resulted in somewhat of a backlash against the NUS President. With a campaign being started to call an emergency national conference through 25 students’ unions holding successful votes of no confidence against him, Facebook pages have sprung up against Porter. “Aaron Porter does not represent me – Campaign to sack NUS ‘President’”, speaks out against the way Porter dealt with the media on November 10, in response to the violence at Millbank.

“What I said on the day is what needed to be said. I took a responsibility: when you are responsible for something you take the credit when it goes well, and I think you need to say what needs to be said if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, some of the scenes of the violence that we saw were too far, and were undermining our cause,” he explained.

He went on: “I have no problem with forms of direct action, but it has to be lawful and if it’s not it needs to be called out. I think, under very difficult circumstances – under what, in truth, was an exceptional amount of pressure – I said what I needed to do, and I hope that I did it in a way that enhanced our cause and meant that we weren’t opened up to much worse consequences.”

It still seems that for every group against him, there is one in favour of his actions: a divide that Porter is all too aware of in his role.

“When you represent an organisation that has seven million members, and you run a very high profile campaign, there will always be some students, and otherwise, that aren’t fully supportive of what we’ve done. I believe the vast majority of students’ unions and students believe that the NUS have led a campaign that has sought to build public support and held politicians to account, in a frankly unprecedented way; I think we’ve brought more issue to government on tuition fees than even the introduction of tuition fees back in 1998.”

He added: “Whilst I am proud of what NUS has done, there are some students’ unions and students who think NUS haven’t been radical enough, that we should have perhaps supported violence, but there are actually some students’ unions who think we’ve been too radical, that we’ve incited violence, and that we’ve been reckless in our actions. But I’m still confident that the overwhelming majority of students and students’ unions support what we’ve done and I am proud to have played a role in that.”

Criticism for Porter also stems from his decision to pursue ensuring fairness in Higher Education with the increased fees in place, rather than continuing to oppose them directly.

“I think there are two choices for students’ unions: we can either continue our principled opposition to fees having gone up, and just continue saying that; or we can retain a principled opposition, but also accept that a vote has been passed and try and make sure we win some concessions for students, and I think the latter is a more appropriate course of action,” he explained.

In terms of thinking for the future, he spoke of holding universities to account in cases where they charge over £6,000 for tuition. High on his list of priorities were increased bursaries for poorer students, improved support for careers and graduate opportunities, and investment in the student experience.

“I think students’ unions are going to have to take an aggressive stance with their university by saying that if students are now paying for the bulk of their education then they should have the right for earlier access to timetables, better resources in the library, quicker turnaround on feedback: the day-to-day issues that students care about, universities need to take more seriously,” he said.

He does, however, still continue to oppose the raise, and hopes for change in the future: “We need to continue our opposition to a market in tuition fees, and students having to contribute as much as they are going to as graduates. We also need to make the case for reinvestment from the state in universities: this coalition have said they’ve had to withdraw as much teaching funding as they have because of the economic situation we’re in… They hope that within four or five years the deficit will be eliminated, and so I’m hoping we should be on the front foot saying when that deficit’s eliminated, the universities should be one of the first areas where the government starts to reinvest, and perhaps if they reinvest they can reduce the tuition fees.

“What I do know, is that NUS is now in the minds of students in a way that it never was three months ago; that we’ve held the government to account; that we’ve still secured some successes from our campaign, but there’s still more to do and I want to work with those who are working in the interests of students, rather than perhaps attributing blame.”

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