The news that Liam Burns has been elected as the new President of The National Union of students arrived earlier this afternoon. He won by a fairly convincing margin – 446 votes with Shane Chowen coming in second place with 279. Pundits were predicting a much tighter race – and there have been some extremely close results over the years. (In 2004, the winner won with a majority of just 2 votes).
Burns impressed many in his 2 year tenure as President of NUS Scotland – articulate, credible and an excellent speaker. Though he wasn’t backed by Aaron Porter, he is a ‘safe pair of hands’ and will not be veering the NUS ship off on wildly different courses. Both Chowen and Burns had accepted the centre-left realignment 2/3 years ago when NUS’ historic commitment to pursuing a policy of free education was quietly dumped, and the organisation (and its centre-left leadership) accepted the principle that students needed to contribute to the cost of HE in some form.
But Burns benefited heavily from transferred votes from the Left candidate, Mark Bergfeld. Bergfeld and his bloc still believe in free education; their tactics too perhaps even more controversial than their politics. Especially since the Millbank debacle last November. Although Burns carries no truck with such tactics, it shouldn’t be underestimated how Scottish Liam Burns is and what that meant for his candidacy. He carries with him a deeply Scottish view of the purpose of higher education, who it is for and how it should be funded. These ideals come from a different and uniquely complicated tradition to the hard left’s message of free education for all – yet his egalitarian tone will have been more appealing to them – hence their crucial 2nd preference support.
Over the last 12 months, Aaron Porter and NUS have tried hard to open up the debate about students as ‘consumers’ – and how increased fees will effect students’ demands and expectations. The basic idea being that in a “marketplace” a more consumer-oriented approach will be necessary. Liam Burns has made it clear through his campaign that he thinks this was a mistake. So one future shift in NUS’ policy and approach might be a return to articulating a more traditional (or indeed more Scottish) idea of who students are. The debate at NUS National Conference, continues.
Update – you can hear Liam Burns on the Today program on Thursday 14th April here.