A view from the other side of the coin. A different opinion on the NUS.

A post by Jamie Neale..

The NUS elections occurred this week, would you know it? The election is an annual event with turnout so low that even your local MEP would be embarrassed by it, but why does it make a difference? Well it is taken to be the be all and end all opinion of the student populace, but does a piss poor job of doing it.

Although I will look at Liam Burns I will refer to one of his competitors who had a decent chance of winning it and encapsulates the whole problem of the NUS, explaining one of the reasons why a growing number of universities (which can get voter turnout) have been leaving it.

Mark Bergfeld (above), a member of the hard-left Socialist Workers Party came a close third in the election. “400 students can block a road, 400 train drivers can bring a country to a halt” although this is a sentiment largely held by this blog, you need to pick your battles and his view that the country is some authoritarian capitalist ‘regime’ under Cameron does not flow. It is also counterproductive, education is and should be open to all, but the fees in my view are not the main issue. When discussing with friends whom largely hold no strong political affiliation, pragmatically they will accept fees and that education has increased in price. Our parents had small classes, a blackboard, chalk and a lecturer. We do not. We have libraries open 24/7 (something you’d be hard pressed to find on the continent), counselling services, Nightline, subscriptions to expensive journals specialising in our field. For law I receive access to Westlaw and Lexis Nexis two databases which you will not find at the same law firm due to the sheer cost of membership. These things and more have changed the way higher education is done, and with it comes an increase cost, that can be begrudgingly accepted by most. For those from poorer backgrounds like the original fee’s introduced by labour there is an overhaul of aid which means once again education is not priced out(though publicising this to the poor is another thing).

The problem is not with the fee’s the problem is with the cuts to education, something which has been overshadowed by the fee’s argument. With the attacks on Millibank, rioting at Abbey and Fortnum and mason shopping, what do these things achieve? (Other than Edward Wooley being gaoled for two years for getting caught in the moment) we lose more traction and a voice against the cuts. Michael Arthur head of the Russell group warned:

It has taken more than 800 years to create one of the world’s greatest education systems and it looks like it will take just six months to bring it to its knees.”

And for those reading with glee; more ammunition against the Con-Dems, this was to a letter to Alistair Darling, the cuts and fight should have started then. Why I also find it ironic Ed Milliband joined the protests in London, when he oversaw the beginning of the end. A decent opposition should prepare alternatives not just criticise; the honeymoon period is over get a policy platform already! But Rant over, how are the UK’s universities meant to keep up to international standard when their funding is being slashed and this fee’s not even bringing them back to it? This is the question not being asked enough, but more importantly not being answered.

Now onto my second part a look at Liam Burns and why he will help lead a further decline in education by being the useless “representative” of students? He has a warped view on social mobility and doesn’t understand the primary reason for university is to learn, from the Herald Scotland

For Liam Burns, NUS Scotland’s president, this is not good enough. Social engineering via positive discrimination should be considered.

I think we should be honest about our priorities,” he said. “At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only 5% of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. That’s not the purpose of universities now – it is about social mobility and people changing their lives. The reality is you need that bit of paper to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence. So we want as many people to get one as possible, at the expense of quality if necessary.”

He added: “It is not good enough to say that the University of the West of Scotland does access, while Glasgow gets to go off and be a centre of excellence. There is a capital that comes with a degree from Glasgow that leads to the best jobs.”

That capital comes from the research quality of the university. There has been recent furore in the press about David Cameron’s remark, that only one black student went to Oxford last year. It turned into an argument of semantics; 1 Afro Caribbean or 41 black undergrads, rather than the fundamental issue. Too few students from minorities (though it should be poverty not minority status which count) and poor backgrounds are gaining access to higher education. By a young age students from poor backgrounds start to fall behind there wealthier counterparts. This is s system which needs to be changed and the unpopular Michael Gove is working on reforms to reverse the decimation done by Labour of pushing students into GNVQ’s and other qualifications which just don’t match up. Underprivileged children can achieve academic results and they need to believe it to achieve it. They don’t need to be told you can’t do it but its ok you can do this instead, or face academic syllabuses which don’t challenge. A friend of mine works in the infamous Haringey council, his bosses struggle to speak English properly and poor quality writing having high level GNVQ in social care. Is it any wonder that we get cases like baby P when the upper management haven’t even got basic level English and Mathematics?

I believe in Social mobility but it should never be at the expense of quality of education. How would you feel having doctors, pilots, nuclear physicists or any other number fields being given low grade education for the goal to be inclusive?

From his victory speech I have another problem

The NUS has retrenched back into the old narrative that there is a hard-left and moderates, and that we have to do everything we can to marginalise them. When we said we condemned everything that happened at Millbank – that was 30 or 40 people who were smashing windows. But there are far more people that have an affinity with direct action and we have to reach out to them.”

Should militancy be rewarded with acceptance and a voice? I have already expressed why militant activities can deter from the real problem at hand. And when those militants like Mark Bergfield regularly compare themselves to those in Libya, Egypt and the rest of the Middle East genuinely fighting for freedom can an organisation be taken seriously. Hopefully they can be subdued but I highly doubt it. They will either have to be marginalised again or will make NUS more militant once again detracting on the real protests which they should be fighting.

Jamie Neale

(ED) this is an opinion of a different sort than usual on our blog. If you disagree with him please do post a comment as a response. I am sure Jamie will be pleased to discuss this issue further


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