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Thur 28 July 2011: First or Fail: University of East London and Theresa May July 28, 2011

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First or Fail: University of East London and Theresa May

This week Aaron Porter explores the unpopular, and potentially very costly, reforms which will limit international student numbers and academic support for the 2012 Olympics

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jul/28/theresa-may-international-students

 

'1 year to go to' the Olympic Games

Staff at the University of East London are already gearing up for the 2012 Olympic games. Photograph: ANTHONY CHARLTON/LOCOG/HO/EPA

Aaron Porter gives his verdict on who has had a good week (heading for a first) and who has had a bad week (heading for a fail).

Heading for a First… University of East London

With the Olympics exactly one year away, it’s not just been a good week for sports fans excited about 16 days of wall-to-wall sport next summer, but located right in the heart of East London, this is fantastic news for the University of East London, its students and staff who are already gearing up for the games.

Already a university that has deep roots in the local community, it has played an instrumental role in helping to realise the regeneration of a part of London which had suffered since the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. Arguably the legacy of the economic investment in East London, the new homes, the creation of more than 40,000 jobs, a new shopping centre and state of the art sporting facilities which will be converted for public use will be an even greater triumph than the games themselves

Academics from UEL have been supporting and analysing all aspects of the games, including research on how sustainable the games will be, through to interactive workshops on nutrition, fitness, strength and conditioning. Along with JISC, the university has also set up an East London Lives 2012 Olympic archive which will give an opportunity for East Londoners to share accounts of how the games are impacting on their lives which will be stored as an online archive.

The Olympic games have the potential to instigate a transformation across a whole host of areas particularly as a catalyst to get more young people taking up a range of sports. It’s heartening to see a university realise the opportunity of the games for them too, and I suspect this could be the beginning of a truly special year for the University of East London.

Heading for a Fail… Theresa May

When David Cameron pronounced in the prime ministerial debates before the last general election that he would oversee “net immigration falling from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands” he was attempting to appeal to the Daily Mail-reading voters he was chasing in order to win. Nick Clegg in stark contrast floated the idea of an immigration amnesty for those who had previously entered the country illegally. At that point, the thought of a chummy relationship between Cam and Clegg right into Downing Street couldn’t have appeared more absurd.

But tie their political vows they did, and now the government’s immigration policy is starting to become an issue of contention. Over the past few months, the Home Office has been consulting on how it could further “tighten up” immigration regulations, but what this really means is looking for how they can further restrict people coming into the country. At present, students are counted in the net immigration figures. The logic behind this is utterly unfathomable to me, not least because internationalstudents are a transient population who return to their country of origin, but while they are in the UK they contribute billions of pounds through fees, accommodation, transport and so much more. In fact international students bring in critical income to our universities, which cross-subsidise the provision for home students – whether institutions will admit this publicly or not, the figures don’t really lie.

The idea that the home secretary is targeting international students by scaling back the provision of post-study work opportunities, and limiting the English language routes into higher education seem entirely counter-productive. There could be a huge cost to the local and national economy, and to the bank balances of universities if recruitment is hit. But the cultural loss to campuses will be enormous if home students are no longer able to find themselves in lecture theatres, sports fields and halls with students from across the globe which helps to make our society more tolerant, understanding and diverse.

This week the cross-party Home Affairs select committee warned that assumptions the home secretary has made on international student recruitment are, “optimistic” and an impact assessment now suggests the costs of the reform could be as much as £3.6bn. But perhaps most worryingly of all, the report goes onto suggest that the home secretary is ignoring the evidence, and simply ploughing ahead anyway. Sounds like the government are blindly chasing the Daily Mail readers again, and for this May definitely deserves a fail.

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Thur 21st July: Guardian HE Network – First or Fail: Robert Gordon University graduates and Charlie Gilmour July 21, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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First or Fail: Robert Gordon University graduates and Charlie Gilmour

Aaron Porter discusses measures for graduate employability and the consequences of student protests

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jul/21/robert-gordon-university-charlie-gilmour

Aberdeen

Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University has the highest success rate in the UK for finding graduates jobs.
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Heading for a First … Robert Gordon University graduates

This week saw the publication of the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s destination survey of first-time full-time graduates (for 2009-10), with the not so snappy acronym DLHE. Somewhat to my surprise, the mainstream university with the best rate of graduate employment wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, but actually Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, with a whopping 95.9% of its cohort headed into employment.

It’s less surprising when you consider that the university has worked hard to secure research partnerships in engineering, computer science and the sub-sea industry, all of which have a real need for highly talented graduates.

Although I still have deep reservations about the quality and robustness of data collected just six months after graduation – I was deeply disappointed that the government didn’t use the recent higher education white paper as an opportunity to commit to a more longitudinal survey of graduate destinations – this is still great news from for the students and alumni in Aberdeen.

Other mainstream universities that figured highly in the survey include the University of Surrey (94.8%), University of Edinburgh (94.8%) and Aberdeen University (94.4%).

Heading for a Fail … Charlie Gilmour

It was one of the images that defined the student protests at the end of last year. Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist David, swinging from a Union Jack hanging from the Cenotaph. A Cambridge University student, from a wealthy home, who appeared to be high on drugs running amok on the streets of London. It was right that this was criticised and, in my opinion, his actions and others like him did nothing to help the student cause and probably hindered it significantly – certainly in terms of trying to build broader public support through the media.

But whatever your opinion about the student protests, and the actions of a tiny minority which went beyond the law, the news this week that Charlie Gilmour has been sentenced to 16 months for jumping on the bonnet of a car which was part of the escort for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall seems disproportionate, unfair and an attempt from the judicial system to make a scapegoat of him.

Probably the most controversial decision of my time as NUS president was to describe the scenes of violence and criminal damage on the students protests as “despicable”. Now out of the eye of the storm and with the benefit of hindsight, I think the language I used was strong. And while I will never defend law- breaking, coupled with the belief that such actions were likely to lose our campaign support, I can’t help feel that the courts need to take a wider perspective. Gilmour was in the wrong, few would contest that. But context is important, and an angry 21-year-old, who had been rejected by his biological father, had been subject to quite disgusting personal attacks on him and his family and had already volunteered to seek help from a psychotherapist has surely paid a hefty price already.

If the courts needed to punish him, on top of the punishment he has faced already, then prison seems like the least appropriate sanction, as far as I’m concerned. What Gilmour will face both in prison and beyond is a great deal more profound than a “fail”. The real failure here is the verdict from our judicial system.

“Blue Skies” book contribution: ‘The students of tomorrow’ July 17, 2011

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“Blue Skies”: ‘The students of tomorrow’

By Aaron Porter –

http://pearsonblueskies.com/the-students-of-tomorrow/

 

Video contribution:

For those of you watching the recent debate on English higher education funding on our TV screens and on the front pages of our newspapers, you could be forgiven for thinking that higher education was predominantly made up of full-time undergraduates, largely aged between 18-22. Of course that is not the case, and is increasingly less likely to be the case as we start to get under the skin of an ever-changing and diverse higher education population.

Already the picture presented to us by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows us that around 4 in 10 students are part-time, 1 in 5 are postgraduates, and just under 1 in 10 are studying in a further education (FE) college. Putting to one side your opinion on the recent finance reforms – the debate is well-rehearsed – and making an educated guess about what may be in the Government’s higher education White Paper, we can be sure that the reforms are almost certainly going to lead to less traditional provision, and even more diversity.

As greater power is put in the hands of the future student, they are likely to choose to learn in different ways and at different times, and are almost certainly going to have different expectations to the students of today. In a speech just before the vote in Parliament on raising the tuition fee cap, I warned that students would likely bring about a “consumer revolution”, and whilst I feel incredibly uncomfortable about the idea of ‘students as consumers’, they will undoubtedly be more demanding about the experience they are likely to receive in the future.

So I suspect as the recent reforms take root, we might start to see an increasingly challenge to the current provision of higher education. The introduction of loans for around two thirds of part-time students is long overdue and welcome, and I hope that it will allow for more part-time students to study alongside part-time work. The pressure to enter full-time higher education at 18 years old will hopefully lessen, as the opportunity to study part-time later in life or even at 18 will now be more viable. And whilst both Browne and the Government missed the opportunity to really seize the mantle and deliver a funding system built on credit, the White Paper will have to address the issue of allowing students to move between and within institutions. The current system has been far too inflexible, in allowing a student to pick up credits over time, a system genuinely based on lifelong learning. Whilst I do not think Lord Browne nor the Government addressed this seriously enough, students will start to demand this in their actions. The idea of students increasingly spending time in different institutions, a period as a work-based learner, and switching between full and part-time study can no longer be prevented, as the student of tomorrow will be increasingly flexible and nimble to respond to the ever-changing demands of the labour market.

It will be the demands of the labour market that will increasingly mean students will want to re-enter higher education later in their working life. As the number of jobs an adult can expect to undertake in their working life continues to spiral upwards, so will the need to re-skill becoming increasingly important. Whilst the traditional campus experience will be important for lots of young adults, access to knowledge and skills will be the greater priority for older learners wanting to upskill or change careers later in life. At present the Open University stands out as the provider of education and qualifications to help the older learner change direction or reskill, but this will need to become the preserve of many more providers, as the UK seeks to keep its adult population with the required skills, and the UK economy competitive with our global competition.

And with an increasingly diverse pattern of provision demanded by future students, they will also have increased expectations of what they will receive too. In our own research NUS/HSBC Student Experience Research 2010;

65% of students said that they would have higher expectations if they were being asked to pay considerably more for their education.

Students, then as graduates, are not only being asked to pay considerably more for their higher education, whilst the government savagely cuts the teaching grant, the disastrously handled debate by Vince Cable and the government means that prospective students will be weighing up their options with real scrutiny, but also with concern about what the returns on their investment may be. With the jobs market still so bleak, and so many of the jobs that graduates went into employment with, such as the public sector, being savagely trimmed back, many students will be exerting their consumer traits onto universities with greater force than before.

The gauntlet has been well and truly laid down. In a new environment, with power in the ‘hands of students’ as David Willetts is so keen to remind us, then universities will need to respond. It can no longer be acceptable that student complaints are left to swill around the system for more than 60 days, at present some are still left unresolved for more than a year. The role of the personal tutor will become more important, as students will want and expect more personalised support to guide them through their learning. The quantity and quality of contact time, which has increasingly come under the spotlight will be an issue of even greater focus. The days when high profile academics are splashed around the university prospectus material, but then hidden away in a research lab away from undergraduate students will no longer be tolerated. Student-led protests against their perceived poor contact time, notably at Bristol and Manchester Universities will happen with increasing frequency unless institutions can respond, and meet rising expectations.

I have no doubts that improved information will be important both for the prospective and current student. The chance to make a more informed choice about what, where and how to study will be important, and then the chance to measure that against their expectations on arrival will be critical. But to ensure the greatest protection for students, we can not simply allow for market forces to run riot alone. The role of the students’ union will become even more important in holding the institution to account, and for the National Union of Students (NUS) to do the same with Government and the sector as a whole. With rights comes responsibility, and in the same way I know that students’ unions will be afforded greater powers as a result of the new flow of money through the student, I fully expect and welcome the need for Student Unions (SUs) and the NUS to increasingly base what we say on evidence, to back up our arguments with fact, but also to be more accountable and transparent to students too. The system will need to have greater regulation too in order to protect the student, and this will need to be forthcoming in the White Paper too.

The period ahead for higher education will undoubtedly be one of change. Whether we see a “consumer revolution” time will tell, and if it happens whether it will be for better or worse. But what is for sure is that talking about higher education and its students through the narrow lens of full-time 18-22 undergraduates enjoying the traditional campus experience will be less and less relevant, and it’s time we all started to get our heads around the landscape and demography of the new world.

Thur 14th July: Aaron Porter’s First or Fail: The Treasury and Office for Fair Access July 14, 2011

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Aaron Porter’s First or Fail: The Treasury and Office for Fair Access

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jul/13/office-for-fair-access-treasury

This week, Aaron Porter examines Offa’s quick work on access agreements and the Treasury’s dashed hopes for average fees

Baby Black Hole

Heading for a budget black hole? Aaron Porter says rough estimates suggest the Treasury could be facing £600m shortfall. Photograph: AP/NASA

Aaron Porter gives his verdict on the good (heading for a first) and the bad (heading for a fail) this week.

Heading for a first: Office for Fair Access (Offa)

It was Mission Impossible. For what would normally take months, but had to be just weeks because of the Government’s rushed higher education funding policy, the Office for Fair Access miraculously managed to sign off the full complement of access agreements this week, for institutions wishing to charge more than £6,000 a year from September 2012, on time and on schedule.

Rather than simply getting the agreements signed off on time and constrained by their existing powers, Offa truly deserves recognition for seeking out a significantly increased outlay from institutions to support the poorest students, but for doing so in the eye of a political storm. Total access agreement funding will be £602m by 2015-16, the first year with three cohorts of the new fee regime students, compared with £407m in 2011-12.

But almost as soon as the government had announced that the upper cap would be set at £9,000 back in November, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable took to the airwaves promising it would only be “in exceptional circumstances”. Nick Clegg even went to Cambridge University to “promise” – a word he should learn to use carefully – that universities would be prevented from charging the maximum unless “they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren’t going”.

Sadly, this was another Clegg promise which showed a complete lack of understanding for the context in which he was operating, this time misunderstanding the role and remit of the office – which is an access regulator, not a price regulator. You’d have thought that the clue was in the title, but then again the deputy prime minister doesn’t have the best track record of twigging things that seem blindingly obvious to everyone else.

However, for as well as Offa has done in the circumstances, its role and remit won’t suffice in the new fees regime. The government needs to stick to what it set out in the white paper and afford new powers to the regulator, and when the new Offa director is appointed later this year, his or her first task will be to give the organisation some teeth and start to measure institutions on their impact and results, not on self-imposed targets.

Heading for a fail: the Treasury

If Offa had a good week, then, sadly, the Treasury had a bad one. For as the ink dried on the access agreements, the dim and distant pipe dream that the average fee would be £7,500 (as Treasury figures assume) were banished once and for all. The Offa analysis shows the average fee is £8,393, which comes down to £8,161 once fee waivers are taken into account. That makes a whopping £616 off per student. It might not sound much, but rough estimates suggest this could lead to a budget black hole of as much as £600m.

This is a big headache for the Treasury, given it has already subjected the higher education budget to the biggest cut in its history over the next four years. With public teaching funds for the arts, humanities and social sciences already gone, it isn’t obvious what the Treasury will do next.

David Willetts has rightly stated his intention to see student numbers grow, and it is surely unthinkable to look at the remaining teaching budget largely concentrated on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), or the widening participation premium which would surely be politically unpalatable to touch.

It almost borders on a conspiracy theory, but perhaps David Willetts knew all along that the average fee would be higher than £7,500, and this far down the road would now be impossible for the Treasury to cut further. Time will tell.

Guardian: First or Fail – David Willetts & Vince Cable (Thur 30th June 2011) July 10, 2011

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Aaron Porter: first or fail

In the first of a series of weekly blog posts, Aaron Porter gives his verdict on who has had a good week (heading for a first) and who has had a bad week (heading for a fail) in HE

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jun/30/aaron-porter-david-willetts-vince-cable#start-of-comments

Vince Cable

Heading for a First: David Willetts

Whether you agree with him or not, our minister for market forces and chaos, I mean universities and science, David Willetts has had a good week. We finally got to see the long awaited HE White Paper, which at 70 pages didn’t really surprise or shock us, but bewilderingly it wasn’t clear why such an unimpressive document was delayed for eight months. What took them so long?

The reason why I’ve awarded him a first this week, is not because I agree with the White Paper, but rather David Willetts has managed to get his way. The establishing of a freer market in higher education, routes for new providers to enter the HE arena, weaker regulation on quality, more information for consumers and greater competition between institutions is the market revolution Willetts and his Conservative colleagues have long craved.

The fact that the Minister of State has clearly won the internal war against his boss, and delivered a document that is Tory through and through, means the path toward a freer market has been established. The initial reaction from academics and students has been sceptical, bordering on the incredulous, but the debate will begin in both parliamentary and academic circles, and it will take a NHS style u-turn to stop Willetts getting his way.

Heading for a Fail: Vince Cable

The very same document which got David Willetts his first, is exactly the same reason why Vince Cable deserves to be awarded a fail. The supposed Secretary of State couldn’t have looked more disinterested in the HE White Paper announcement. Some commented how tortured he looked in the House, sat next to Willetts as the speaker first called the Secretary of State to the dispatch box, only to realise Dr Cable had abdicated that particular responsibility, and instead called the Minister of State to stand in for his boss.

In fact every time the words ‘higher education’ or ‘students’ are uttered, Vince appears to do a runner. The twitterati started to speculate why Cable was so absent from the press work and defence of the document, as unimpressively, and without precedent the man once regarded as “the most popular man in politics” has been turned into a laughing stock by students and academics alike. In April this year, Cable delivered a finger-wagging speech to a packed HEFCE Conference, the few allies he had in the sector turned their back on him, and his relationship with the sector appears all but broken.

But specifically, after the troubles over tuition fees and the infamous broken pledge, this should have been the chance for the Liberal Democrats to prove they do care about students, higher education and a chance to stamp some authority on the coalition. A chance for tough targets on widening access, missing. An opportunity to resist a worrying leap to pure consumerism, or an opening to strongly emphasise the importance of academic freedom – all missing. Rather than seizing the white paper as a chance to repair the Lib Dem’s damaged reputation on higher education, Cable went walkabouts.

Not much evidence of “muscular liberalism” here.

Interview on BBC’s Hardtalk January 9, 2011

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Link to my interview on BBC Hardtalk – which is generally regarded to be the toughest interview show on TV!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00x79s9/HARDtalk_Aaron_Porter_President_UK_National_Union_of_Students/

Open letter to Simon Hughes following his appointment as the Government’s ‘access advocate’ January 4, 2011

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An open letter to Simon Hughes on University Access.

5th January 2010

Dear Simon,

Congratulations on your appointment to the role of “Advocate for Access to Education”. Given the serious access problem we have in many of our elite Universities and the proposals to treble tuition fees by the Coalition it will be a challenging role – especially if it is to go beyond the kind of “window dressing” that the role has already been accused of. NUS has long called for there to be a more serious debate and attention paid to access into continued education, particularly with better information, advice and guidance given to prospective students. Alongside our member students’ unions we are fully committed to improving and widening university access and are ready and willing to assist in your efforts to ensure that university is opened up to anyone with the talent to achieve. Our 16-18 members in FE Colleges are keen to work with you on your research into the barriers to access they face.

To begin with, we have six recommendations:

First, we would recommend that the Government urgently clarifies its “National Scholarship Scheme”. On the weekend before the fees vote, the Government was claiming that pupils on free school meals would get a free first year at University. Now the Government has dropped that commitment- arguing instead that the scheme should consist of different packages, bid for by universities. Whilst we appreciate that the free school meals measure is only a narrow pool, it was precisely this kind of “postcode lottery” on student financial assistance that your manifesto commitment on bursaries was designed to scrap- so to avoid misleading students, getting the Government to come clean on its “free first year” offer would be a good start, and being clear about which students are now eligible for this support is imperative.

Second, you could hold the Government to its promise on the fee cap. You will know that ministers have repeatedly claimed that the higher limit would only apply in “exceptional” circumstances– but we are finding it hard to get the Government to explain how it will ensure that £9k rather than £6k fees will be the “exception”. Your efforts here could mean ensuring the Government doesn’t break another promise- this time one made repeatedly on the floor of the house.

Third, you could insist that universities do much more to promote access. At present universities are only routinely judged on applications from the poorest; but it is acceptances and completions (as well as achievement) that matter more. Insisting that the monitoring of access achievements gets tougher, and that the HE sector gets its act together on measures such as Post Qualifications Admissions (where students apply once they have their results) and Contextual Admissions (where applicants are judged on academic potential), could make a massive difference.

Fourth, you could insist that the Government reinstates AimHigher. Up until now the debate on access has focussed heavily on 17 and 18 year olds, but research in this area suggests intervention earlier in school is crucial. This is exactly what the AimHigher programme ensured, by funding to ensure meaningful links were built up between universities and schools. The programme has made a massive difference to aspiration to apply to university across the country and the decision to scrap it will only harm our shared cause to improve access, particularly at a time when the Coalition have trebled tuition fees.

Fifth, you would do well to suggest that the Government listens and responds to voices in the Muslim community making clear how damaging the changes to loan interest rates will be to access for this group. FOSIS (the Federation of Islamic Student Societies) have repeatedly made clear why the changes will be a problem but so far have had no contact from ministers or officials.

But sixth and most importantly, you could demand that the EMA is reinstated. Everyone agrees that the biggest factor in determining university access is achievement at Level 3- or A Level. So for Gove to axe it (having promised to keep it) on the most threadbare of evidence is astonishing, and will do more to harm university access than your role could ever fix. Officially, you only have the power to recommend how a £50m replacement for a £450m scheme is spent. Unofficially, you could make abundantly clear just how devastating for the poorest families the removal of the EMA will be to retention and achievement- and get it reinstated before it’s too late.

I fear that measures the Government have taken so far in office have been utterly counter-productive for social mobility, I hope that your appointment will start to see this reversed, and look forward to hearing back from you in relation to the role NUS can play to help you achieve this, and the six recommendations I have made above as an important start point.

Best wishes,

Aaron Porter
National President

The Observer: “Smart suit, shiny shoes … meet the new NUS president leading the battle against fees” (20th June 2010) January 1, 2011

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Smart suit, shiny shoes … meet the new NUS president leading the battle against fees

published in The Observer on 20th June 2010:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/jun/20/nus-president-battle-fees-aaron-porter

As the union turns to persuasion not placards, Aaron Porter is finding unlikely support

  • Anushka Asthana, policy editor
  • The Observer, Sunday 20 June 2010
  • Scott Barbour

    Students take part in a demonstration to protest over higher tuition fees in London, England. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

    Aaron Porter, 25, has just moved back in with his parents in Norbury, south London, after graduating in English literature from the University of Leicester. Not quite the profile you might expect of a man who, as the new president of the National Union of Students, is about to lead one of the fiercest political battles in a generation.

    Porter has only months in this new age of austerity to convince Lord Browne, who is carrying out a major review into university financing, that the government should not raise the cap on student fees.

    If he fails, hundreds of thousands of young people he represents now – and millions in the future – will face an increasingly US-style market in higher education. That could mean starting their working lives with debts of £50,000 or more. “I’ve got a hell of a lot on my plate,” he admits.

    The campaigning begins in earnest tomorrow, when thousands of students and lecturers team up for 70 events across the country, hoping that higher education will be spared the worst of the cuts to be unveiled in Tuesday’s emergency budget.

    Porter might be living with his parents – a policeman who grew up in London and a teacher from Trinidad – but by day his job is as high-powered as they come. Dressed in a smart dark suit, striped shirt, red tie and shiny black shoes, he is due to go from this interview with the Observer to a one-on-one meeting with Lord Browne. From there it is on to an advisory forum with top figures in the field including Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, which represents all vice-chancellors.

    Porter officially becomes NUS president on 1 July, but he has already met Vince Cable, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, and tomorrow he will sit down with David Willetts, the universities minister. In between the occasional dinner cooked by his mother, he is working 10 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. “The stakes are so high – it is imperative I get my point across,” he says.

    Success, says Porter, is “ensuring that a market in fees does not emerge”. And failure? “The disaster would be a real market in fees coupled with cuts from the government… it will devastate some people’s lives.” He is fighting hard to stop universities getting their way and lifting the £3,225-a-year cap on fees (due to rise to £3,290 this year).

    Porter is already worried about predictions that this summer 150,000 pupils who have the ability to go to university will never make it. Tackling that issue is what he sees as his key role: “It is vital – I have to stand up to defend what could be a lost generation of young people. And also ensure that education can continue to be based on ability, and not ability to pay. That is the real battle we are up against.”

    It is a battle for which the NUS has created a new strategy. One of the youngest unions in the country has given up shouting from the sidelines and decided instead to step into the fray.

    “We’ve moved from irrelevance to the centre of the debate,” he says. “By ensuring we have evidence-based policy and engaging in the debate that is happening, not in some imaginary one.” Porter remembers 2004, when he was 19 and the decision was being taken to increase fees from their original level of £1,000 a year. At that time the NUS stuck to a position opposing all tuition fees, calling instead for the reinstatement of grants.

    But, he argues, the argument had already been lost and the time had come to move on. “There came a point when the debate was no longer ‘should there be fees or not?’, but ‘how do we fund higher education?’ Rather than sitting at the table, we were standing outside shouting. We weren’t taken seriously: we were left out in the cold.”

    It was his predecessor, Wes Streeting, who fought to change the NUS from the inside, dropping its opposition to contributions from students. Instead, the organisation came up with an alternative – a graduate tax, which would see students face a slightly increased rate of income tax over their careers. It was a fight to get the union to accept it and now Porter is determined to maintain the policy. “There are some that think we should stick to the principled position of free education. But if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken.”

    Porter is a member of the Labour party but decided to run for the role of president as an independent, believing that would be the best way to serve students. Student support for Labour has ebbed away in recent years. A poll carried out before the general election suggested 50% of students were planning to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

    Porter believes Nick Clegg’s party has placed itself in a difficult position. After all, it promised in its manifesto to phase out fees – a hugely popular move. Yet in the coalition agreement the party agreed to await the outcome of Browne’s review. Should it be unpalatable to the party, Clegg and his negotiating team agreed that Lib Dem MPs would abstain, allowing the review’s conclusions to be implemented if supported by the Conservatives and Labour. Porter knows that the party – and especially Cable – is under from pressure from vice-chancellors who insist fees must go up if they are to compete successfully with foreign competitors. The universities believes fees should be seen as an additional income on top of government funding – not an alternative.

    “There are tens of thousands of students who voted for the Liberal Democrats on a pledge that they would not raise fees,” says Porter. “It they do not stick to that position they will not only lose the trust of students but the general public. I think it would be political suicide for the Lib Dems to go into coalition with the Conservatives on this issue.”

    He goes further: “I don’t believe the Lib Dems can look the electorate in the eye if they go back on their word. We would be happy to work with them on an alternative way of funding higher education.” As for the Conservatives, he talks of a “constructive” relationship with Willetts in opposition. “He surprised us, a Tory minister, and I hope we surprised him as a national union.”

    Indeed, the politician has been full of praise for the NUS. When in opposition Willetts said the transformation of the union and its new way of fighting was “the most powerful single way of making sure that politicians listen”. That was in October 2009, at an NUS conference. It was there that Willetts claimed the case for raising the cap had not been won by universities. “How would I vote today? I think I would say today, if the vote arose, that the case has not been made,” he said. “This is not an argument that I believe the universities have won. They haven’t yet properly accounted for the first £3,000 they had, so I would say not unless, and until, you have shown what is in it for students and their parents.”

    Porter hopes to convince Willetts that vice-chancellors have still not won the argument. “I don’t think universities have made the case sufficiently about how they could improve what students receive,” he says, saying the call for higher fees lacks “legitimacy”.

    Porter believes that failure by the NUS to win this argument will hurt those from the poorest backgrounds in the long run, who are deterred from applying to university. Those that do choose to study at a higher level may have to stay at home missing out on the extracurricular activities such as volunteering and clubs – not to mention learning to live independently, “to cook and wash for themselves”.

    Then there is the post-university impact. Heavy fees could mean different decisions about marriage, he argues, and could create a society in which graduates habitually rent instead of buying homes. “I recognise the pressures on university and college funding but they have had a decade of almost exponential investment and very few of them had the foresight to realise there might be a few years of difficulties.” His argument is that it is not fair to burden students with the cost of that failure.

    Porter perhaps owes his own political drive to his mother, who timed dinner with the six o’clock news when he was growing up. “I remember taking an unhealthy interest in the 1992 election,” he says. “I was seven.”

    Should he fail and fees go up, he says: “I don’t think vice-chancellors are so bloodthirsty that they would not make some grants available. But if you graduate with £50,000 of debt, or £80,000 or £90,000 if you are a medic… I would think twice.” As for the struggle, it will be a bit of the old and a bit of the new, he says: meetings behind closed doors with the likes of Willetts, Cable and Browne – but an old-fashioned national demonstration to remind the country that students still know how to shout.

    WHATEVER HAPPENED TO OTHER NUS PRESIDENTS?

    Jack Straw, 1969-71

    Became president of an increasingly radical NUS in 1969 after campaigning to remove the union’s “no politics” clause. Ten years later he was elected as Labour MP for Blackburn and went on to serve as home and foreign secretaries. Now shadow justice secretary. His son, Will, followed in his footsteps, becoming president of the Oxford University Student Union. 

    Charles Clarke, 1975-77

    Clarke – who had been a prominent Labour MP – lost his seat in the election by 310 votes. He had served as education and home secretaries during Labour’s 13 years in power.

    Sue Slipman, 1977-78

    She was the first woman to be elected president in 1977 after being supported by the Broad Left, a coalition of the Labour party, Plaid Cymru, the Communist party of Great Britain and others. Credited with reforming the way in which single mothers were seen by society as head of the National Council For One-Parent Families in the 1980s and 90s.

    Trevor Phillips, 1978-80

    Became president after leading student union at Imperial College London. Worked in TV before entering politics. Was head of Commission for Racial Equality and leads its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

    David Aaronovitch, 1980-82

    After being thrown out of Oxford, Aaronovitch studied history at Manchester University. While there, in 1975, he was part of a University Challenge team that answered every question with “Che Guevara”, “Marx”, “Trotsky” or “Lenin”. It was a protest about the programme’s bias towards Oxbridge. Now a writer and journalist.

    Lorna Fitzsimons, 1992-94

    Elected to parliament three years later. Became MP for Rochdale in 1997 – and was described as one of Blair’s babes – but lost her seat in 2005. Now chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

    Aaron Porter for NUS President – Manifesto March 28, 2010

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    Link to manifesto: Aaron Porter for NUS President

    A manifesto which will place us at the fore-front for the fight for fairer funding, fighting cuts to education and will ensure that NUS becomes closer to students and Students’ Union.

    – Fighting Cuts to Education

    – Funding Our Future

    – Prioritising Further Education

    – Cutting Edge Communication with students and SUs

    – Student Activities, Volunteering & Sport

    – Accountability and Transparency

    – Delivering for Students’ Unions

    – Project : Participation

    – Uniting Education Unions

    – NUS Events & Training

    – International Students

    – Nations

    – Liberation across the movement

    – Supporting Religious Students