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Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students (NUS), has announced he will not stand for re-election when his current term in office ends.
In a statement released on the NUS website, Porter said, “After considerable soul searching, I believe there needs to be a new president to lead the student movement into that next phase. As a result, I’ve resolved not to seek re-election at National Conference this year.”
Porter’s decision comes after a torrid year for students, which saw MPs vote in favour of the plans to treble tuition fees and cut funding to higher education institutions. He is the first president since 1978 to not re-stand for a second term.
“The Government’s decision to treble tuition fees was a bitter pill to swallow,” Porter continued. “And whilst a number of concessions were secured, notably for part-time students as well as an increased threshold of repayment for all graduates, this was still not the outcome we wanted. Thousands of students will now decide that Higher Education is not for them and the ones that do get to go will be plunged into an era of market chaos. It’s a tragedy, and one that requires relentless pressure, both locally and nationally, to ensure that it is exposed and replaced with something better as soon as possible.”
Many students applaud Porter’s decision to step down amid accusations that he did not do enough to oppose government plans to increase fees. Popular feeling is that Porter should have taken a firmer stance against the proposals from the start. A number of anti-Porter Facebook pages have been set up. One cites “Aaron Porter does not represent me” as its title and reads “Aaron Porter, I am a student and I think YOU are an utter disgrace. If you do not support students then don’t lead the NUS.”
Students began to turn against Porter in December, after a small number who were protesting against the increased tuition fees were involved in violent skirmishes with police. A number of people were arrested during the demonstration. Porter quickly condemned the actions of this minority, but some felt he was too hasty and showed a lack of support for the students who were still demonstrating peacefully.
However, Lancaster University’s Student Union (LUSU) President Robbie Pickles feels Porter is not solely to blame. “I believe that in general the NUS does not make the best use of its huge membership or of its resources to truly represent UK students. In this context, Aaron Porter took on an extremely difficult task. In the year that such a huge amount of damage has been done to Higher Education, no NUS President would have been able to successfully prevent the Government from taking the action it wanted. The NUS as a whole is simply not powerful enough and was not united in preventing an alternative.
“This was shown by the fact that neither Aaron’s more moderate approach nor the more militant action which took place had any effect whatsoever. I do not believe that any amount of either approach would have altered the view of the Conservative-led government or prevented the policy from passing on December 9.”
Porter himself acknowledged the difficulties of his presidency and the criticism which such a prominent position can bring with it. Writing for The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, he looked to the future of the NUS with caution. “The challenge for the new national president will be great. They’ll need to support students up and down the country to ensure the continuance of quality education, while running a major national campaign to defeat damaging marketisation in education and planning to hold to account the politicians that turned their back on us.”
Other students have also leapt to the defence of Aaron Porter, who organised a protest march in November which attracted 52,000 people. “Porter has been unlucky that all this happened during his time in office,” said Leah Lindhurst, a third year Criminology student. “The march in November which was attended by so many people resulted in the Liberal Democrats pledging to vote against an increase in fees, but they went back on this promise.”
Porter concluded his initial statement by thanking everyone for their support. “I want to say thank you to the hundreds of students and student officers who have been so supportive this year and indeed for the nominations for a second term which I had already been sent. It goes without saying that with a white paper on its way, the next four months remain a huge opportunity for the organisation and I will be relentless in ensuring I do the very best I can in the role.
“We should continue to be proud of what we have achieved, and it has been an honour to be President at this time.”