Upcoming NUS elections: meet the three candidates

7:46 pm - February 27th 2011

by Owen Jones    

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There are three front-runners in the election in April to replace Aaron Porter as President of the National Union of Students. The contest is significant for students and non-students alike, so I’ve interviewed all three.

Liam Burns is currently President of NUS Scotland, Shane Chowen is Vice President (Further Education) of the NUS and Mark Bergfeld is member of the NUS National Executive and spokesperson for the Education Activist Network.

Q1. How could the NUS have played things differently with the new student movements that emerged after last November’s NUS/UCU demo?

Liam Burns
We should have been honest about the tensions between students’ unions who traditionally have won significantly for students locally through lobbying and influencing, and anti-cuts groups that had more affinity for direct action. NUS retrenched into the ‘left’ vs. the ‘moderates’ narrative once again.

That wasn’t the landscape anymore. Those in occupation and other protests weren’t by any means all SWP activists with a broader political agenda. Some might not have even considered themselves particularly left. They simply had more connection to the direct action being organised around them and couldn’t understand why NUS was attacking them for that.

I put down two amendments at the NUS National Executive Committee to remove direct criticism of EAN/NCACF and all Scottish reps voted to support the London action on 26th January. Now I’m not claiming direct action is my natural turf at all. I am saying that in Scotland we’ve tried our best to be honest about those tensions and make room for different tactics by working with anti-cuts groups, not against them.

Mark Bergfeld
Already before November 10 the walk-out group for November 24 counted more than 5000 members on facebook. I even raised it with various members of the NEC. Many of them liked the idea, but Millbank changed everything.

Aaron Porter was foolish to condemn the students as a small and violent minority, label these acts despicable and then retract from his statements. What the NUS leadership should have done is come in behind the call for walk-outs instead of discouraging students to do so. But what we need is a national Union which leads the struggle. After the 50k-strong demo, NUS could have easily called for an indefinite student strike until Browne was off the table.

Students in Puerto Rico had just won, students in France were fighting back and Greece had seen 6 general strikes in 6 months. We could have mobilized all the union’s resources to fight back against Clegg and Cameron. At the same time our Union’s members were being witch-hunted by the media and hunted down by the police. Our Union should unequivocally defended each and every of its students. Instead we had to set up a defend the right to protest campaign helping students with legal and moral aid on a shoe string budget.

Shane Chowen
Many different forms of activism have emerged since last November, each taking a different approach in ultimately achieving the same goal. What I think NUS has to do is maintain a member-led strategy when it comes to our tactics as an organisation which of course recognises that students will react in different ways, become active at different issues and hold different views on what is or isn’t effective. What I resent is the way the debate has turned into a “my tactics are better than yours” which some have used to bash NUS with, at a time when we’re all fighting the same fight, just in different ways.

I want to lead an NUS which responds in a way our collective membership want us to respond through the democratic decision making processes we have. Other groups will act in different ways and that’s fine but what has to end is the bitter war which is essentially over whose logo goes on flyers because this is what turns students away.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Q2. Under your leadership, would the NUS support and build for new protests and/or non- violent direct action?

Liam Burns
Yes. My manifesto is clear that we have a duty to educate new generations of students so we don’t slip into acceptance in four years time when having students aware and angry about the system they study under is critical. We should mark the increasing of tuition fees and scrapping of EMA with a national demonstration. Crucially that has to be connected with influencing parliamentary machinery, but of course also empowers new students to get involved with the campaign.

That works both ways though. Groups like EAN and NCACF have been critical of NUS for not being able to mobilise students on very short notice and small resource. Fine. I’ll take the criticism but with the threat of NUS somehow trying to undermine that action removed then get on with it. NUS has a massive range of activities and I won’t let us drop everything all of the time for direct action. But we will be supportive.

Mark Bergfeld
Desperate times like these mean we cannot continue with business as usual. The poll tax was voted through parliament and later defeated by mass protests, the CPE laws in France which curtailed young workers’ rights was voted through parliament and subsequently could not be implemented to due to pressure from the streets.

At this year’s NUS conference we are calling for another national demonstration in the autumn. This could be used as a launchpad for a strike movement in the colleges and universities. We face a real fight now. The UCU is balloting for strike action over jobs and pensions. The students need to come in behind that and argue for a shutdown of our education on the day of the strike. Our Union could be taking a lead on that but is failing to do so.

Shane Chowen
There is of course ‘demand’ for direct action to take place and I think as Universities announce their fee levels, as redundancies take hold in the education and public sector and as youth unemployment continues to rise, more and more students and young people will want to be part of a movement that says no. That’s why I want to continue our relationship with the Trade Union movement and extend it to a local level too. When I organised the two days of action for the Save EMA Campaign, the strength and power of local direct action was astounding. One of the best days I’ve had as VPFE was speaking at a rally after a demonstration organised by a small sixth form college in Taunton. I was proud that NUS was there to help them organise that demonstration, liaise with the police and so forth.

So I see protests and some forms of direct action as engaging and powerful campaign tools. I want to see more localised campaigning which involve more people from across our communities, I want NUS to support students’ unions put together the best and most effective campaigning strategies and I want NUS itself to be an organisation ready and willing to deliver national demonstrations when the time is right.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Q3. What are your thoughts on the occupations that swept many university campuses across the country?

Liam Burns
If I’m being utterly honest, I’m still learning about occupations. I went to Edinburgh’s and Newcastle’s and never quite nailed if they were always about demands to the institution or simply a space to organise. I think it varies. They should never disrupt learning as that is utterly counter productive and NUS will always takes its lead on support from the students’ union. But they are certainly going to become more important as decisions are increasingly taken by local management and not national bodies.

Mark Bergfeld
We had more than 40 occupations at colleges, schools and univeristies. They became contagious and were shown to be the main tool to build the Dec 9 demonstration. Many of them I managed to visit and see how they were used as organising hubs. Any movement has new forms of democracy from below and the occupations served to be that new form when traditional structures like the NUS failed to lead the struggle.

In 2009, I led the occupation over the Israeli attack on Gaza and last academic year I led the occupation of the Estates management at Essex Uni in which we won a 16.5% rent reduction. In both cases, I felt extremely empowered by the experience. As the cuts hit at our colleges, occupations will spring up again and become even more of a focus.

Shane Chowen
The key to achieving maximum impact during campaigns is to use the right tactic at the right time. So as long as it’s legal, non-violent and supported by students, I won’t condemn the use of any tactic. I have always felt that NUS has to be member led, and the best way for members to set the direction for the student movement is through their own students’ unions democracy. So if the local union supports an occupation I think it’s right that NUS does too. It is not NUS’ place to undermine local democracy. Where students’ unions have reached a democratic decision, it is not the place of NUS to in any way undermine it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Q4. How would you describe your overall strategy for defeating the Government’s agenda?

Liam Burns
Rejecting consumerism. We have to ensure that we’re not won over by the temptation to act like the consumers the Government wants us to become. It might be justified to start demanding a better education under the guise of ‘value for money’, but it would be the wrong thing to do. We can’t end up in a position where students have been pacified as a generation content with ‘you get what you pay for’ if we are to win the argument for reintroduction of public money in higher education and a fairer funding system. We’ve fought for things like better feedback, contact hours and estates because it leads to a better education and ultimately better graduates before – we don’t need to resort to market rationale to continue that campaigning.

Getting to the future leaders. School pupils, first years and college students are going to be the ones leading the campaign and so giving ownership and support to them from day one is critical.

Remembering who our target is. We can’t keep arguing within the movement. The tensions that exist have to be dealt with as far as they can. Crucially, and I say this to both perspectives, developing respect for the fact that direct action and lobbying are not mutually exclusive forms of activism.

Mark Bergfeld
The Coalition has no mandate to cut as no one voted for these cuts.

The students have created a deep political crisis within the Coalition government. Their display of people’s power has rocked the Coalition to its foundations. This is only being vindicated by the fact that they can’t sell of the forests and are coming under real pressure over the question of the NHS.

The students have made it clear that they are fighting for each and every person under attack. March 26 thus becomes a central focus when everyone can come together and display the people’s power that shook Mubarak in Egypt.

People’s power though was not enough to force Mubarak down and won’t be enough to force Cameron and Clegg out of office. We need to learn Greek and use March 26 as a launchapad for co-ordinated strike action leading up to a general strike.

The militancy of the students coupled with the strenghth of the unions can break the coalition.

Shane Chowen
I want to use students’ union’s authority on the rights of students to expose the Government’s agenda for what it is – unfair, irresponsible and ideological.

That means for example giving students’ unions more support in gathering evidence for select committee submissions. It means having a proactive media strategy, so NUS and students’ unions are creating the news, rather than responding to it the whole time. It means running national campaigns which activate and involve even more people and it means extending our reach to our members that can not engage in traditional models of representation.

The key to moving NUS forward is by maintaining the pressure we put on politicians last May right up to the next general election. They have to know that we will not forget every single Lib Dem that broke their pledge on fees, they have to know that students are, and will continue, to be angry at an agenda with nothing to say except to restrict opportunity.

To do this I will deliver a radical new approach to NUS priority campaign on education funding which will expose the Coalition’s proposals as disproportionately targeting low-income families particularly by introducing new levels of fees for adults with low level qualifications, excluding vulnerable groups from free ESOL training in addition to the injustices of cuts to further and higher education budgets.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Mark tweets as @mdbergfeld, Liam tweets as @nus_liam, Shane tweets as @shanechowen.

The full interviews are on my blog, for Liam Burns, Mark Bergfeld and Shane Chowen.

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About the author
Owen Jones is author of ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’, to be published by Verso in May 2011. He blogs here and tweets here.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Education ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments

What about education itself? It’s fine for these three lads to talk about direct action, fees and strategy for challenging government. But getting back to the job itself, NUS Presidentship, what about education?


For that matter it would be interesting to see what they think about making the NUS more democratic. NUS delegates have already been elected so what students think of the candidates is going to have no bearing on who gets elected.

Hi guys – you can see the answers to those questions on my blog (links at the bottom of the article)

participating in higher education is consumerism. if you dont want to “act like the consumers the Government wants us to become” dont go to university, which is both an enforcer and an exacerbator of the class and consumer systems. go do something else instead.

or recognise what it is and stop talking rubbish.

as a mature part time female student i sure am glad that my options for representation are all young guys looking to make a reputation for themselves politically rather than attempt to actually (gosh!) change the system itself to better serve the whole community rather than the small section who are currently wailing about potentially losing their previously taken for granted privileges.

its great to know they are all prioritising their ‘anti government’ activism (which ironically is all about protecting the status quo and the aforementioned privileges) but is there any chance we can hear something:

a/ about them (are any of them parents? are any of them over 25? what are their cultural/class backgrounds? why did they choose to go to uni? etc)
b/ about what they think are the pros and cons of higher education (fulltime, parttime, and distance learning), how they think it might better serve the whole community, etc.

looks to me like the wannabe labour guy is going to be replaced by another wannabe labour guy, just the new one is gonna ride on the negativity surrounding the current one, while doing nothing particularly different.

the idea that the nus should be used for party politics (all the ‘we must act against the coalition’ bollocks) is largely why it seems so pointless and laughable. go ahead, replace porter with nu-porter, excellent, well done.

Who’s the one that’s most in tune and in league with Labour, they win every election.

now that diet sprite is stepping down we can offer you a choice between sprite zero, sprite z, and sugar free sprite. we hope that you appreciate the value of each of these very different choices. all three are dedicated to their anti pepsi activism.

Thanks for conducting the three interviews, Owen.

But you didn’t ask about education. Question 1 “What is the alternative to tuition fees and the marketisation of education?” came close, and only Shane Chowen addressed the second part of your question.

Questions for Mark Bergfield (I followed the link Owen Jones just gave in the comments):

What does Mark Bergfield mean when he says he ‘stands on the platform of free education for all’? Is he saying he supports free access to education for everyone for the period of their entire lifetime? Is he advocating opening the universities up for lifelong learning for the whole community? Or does he have some limits – maybe he merely supports free higher (only university?) education for all school leavers that achieve a certain level in GCSEs/A-Levels? Or does he believe that 100% of 18 year olds should receive government funding for full time education for three years regardless of previous qualification?

When he says the Coalition government has ‘no mandate’ does he realise that one of the governments jobs is to balance income and spending?

When he was asked for alternatives, he replied mptily that ‘alternatives are really needed’. Could he attempt to answer the actual question instead of practicing argument deflection techniques?

When he says that the rise in fees demonstrates how ‘the market’ has been let in to education, does he understand that access to higher education has always been an exclusive market?

After reading all the interviews fully, I hope Liam Burns is successful. Partly because he gave sensible and honest seeming replies while the others indulged in political (in the worst sense of the term) non-responses. And partly because he looks the most fun.

I really think that anyone who talks about ‘free education’ should have to say exactly what they mean by it.

It offends me when people use empty phrases like that. They are betting that we are stupid enough to read meaning where there is none, and therefore let them coast into whatever position they aspire without having to do any of the work of actually thinking and researching, and putting their eventual ideas out there to be analysed and discussed and potentially disagreed with.

Its so patronising. Its 2011 ffs.

What does Mark Bergfield mean when he says he ‘stands on the platform of free education for all’? Is he saying he supports free access to education for everyone for the period of their entire lifetime? Is he advocating opening the universities up for lifelong learning for the whole community? Or does he have some limits – maybe he merely supports free higher (only university?) education for all school leavers that achieve a certain level in GCSEs/A-Levels? Or does he believe that 100% of 18 year olds should receive government funding for full time education for three years regardless of previous qualification?

I endorse this question and would also pose another. Say there’s two options: university or a job (if you can get one). The former makes no financial demands and, let’s be honest, needn’t be too burdensome when it comes to work. The latter is stressful, time consuming and imposes the pressure to earn money to sustain oneself. I’m sceptical of rational choice theory but, still, it’s hard to see who’s going to think, “Y’know, I’ll give that free joyride a miss.” So, people with no real desire to study, who might benefit from other forms of education or, indeed, a plunge into the big wide world may find themselves stagnating, wasting time and money in the process and, indeed, devaluing the whole shebang.

Perhaps I’m just an elitist shithead but is there anyone who’s (a) been to university in the past ten years and (b) been at a university that doesn’t offer blues who can truly say they didn’t meet students whose, er “studies” didn’t extend much further than the menu in SU bar and who’s ambitions didn’t run much further than the snooker table? Sure, I’m not saying people should be forced out through a heartless game of class or income limbo but if one option is made quite so bountifully attractive – without, say, enhancing the alternatives of part and full-time education, apprenticeships and, hey, the job market – I’m not sure it’s going to stay a “place of critical learning” for much long.

[*] too long

SWP always like to tub thump at NUS elections, but seldom do well. Students are becoming more political as a result of the EMA marches and the student fees demonstrations, but are unlikely to swing that far left. The candidate who wins will need to carve a tricky path between a willingness to engage in direct action and a willingness to accept political expediency.

“Meet the three candidates”? Are you boycotting Thomas Byrne for some reason?

Poor quality post for that reason.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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  2. Owen Jones

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  3. PRO Legal

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  4. PRO Law

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  5. epicsplurge

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  6. sunny hundal

    For the upcoming NUS elections, @OwenJones84 speaks to the three front-runners about occupations http://bit.ly/eXpC0a

  7. petertarlan

    Liam Burns NUS Pres. candidate rejects call to demand "better education under the guise of ‘value 4 money’" God forbid! http://bit.ly/hCXe1Z

  8. churchoflabour

    RT @sunny_hundal: For the upcoming NUS elections, @OwenJones84 speaks to the three front-runners about occupations http://bit.ly/eXpC0a

  9. matthewsmth

    RT @libcon: Upcoming NUS elections: meet the three candidates http://bit.ly/eXpC0a

  10. Chris Jenkinson

    http://j.mp/eBbfxE < Bergfield says "no one voted for cuts". Actually, over 88% of voters chose a party proposing cuts #trotfail

  11. Ms Cat, Andrea

    RT @chrisjenkinson: http://j.mp/eBbfxE < Bergfield says "no one voted for cuts". Actually, over 88% of voters chose a party proposing …

  12. liberal tory

    Where the feck is @ByrneToff on this? Chuffing bias http://j.mp/eBbfxE

  13. Mark Trewavas

    @ByrneToff have you seen this? http://is.gd/bg12SX

  14. I’m the fourth NUS candidate: why you should vote for me | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] other day, Liberal Conspiracy interviewed the three “front runners” in the race to be National Union of Students President. What they failed to mention is that there […]

  15. Jayden

    Read this: http://miniurl.com/102198 every1 else – same old. @mdbergfeld Is the realest brother. Respect. #mark4prez #nusnc11 @NUSnc11

  16. Mark Bergfeld

    RT @Jayden158: Read this: http://miniurl.com/102198 every1 else – same old. @mdbergfeld Is the realest brother. Respect. #mark4prez #nusnc11 @NUSnc11

  17. Jon Stone

    @GuyAitchison definitely better than Shane Chowen! http://bit.ly/fkkFXU

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