Students to elect new leader for battle over tuition fees

STUDENTS will this week elect a new leader to spearhead the next stage of their bitter battle with the Government over tuition fees and funding cuts.

The new president of the National Union of Students (NUS) will be elected at the union’s annual conference in Newcastle amid mounting concern at the increasing number of universities planning to charge the maximum fee of £9,000 a year.

Four candidates will contest the top job – the president of NUS Scotland, the union’s vice president of higher education, a left-winger who is also on the union’s executive and a first-year politics student.

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Whoever wins, they will succeed Aaron Porter, who has decided to step down following criticism of his response to last year’s high-profile fees protests.

After the organised demonstrations descended into chaos, with violent clashes between police and activists, Mr Porter moved quickly to distance the NUS from the trouble.

But he drew criticism from some activists for not offering stronger leadership.

The line-up for the presidential election reflects growing differences within the union over the stance it should be taking on high-profile issues such as the increase in tuition fees.

One of the candidates, Mark Bergfeld, a sociology graduate from Essex University, is a spokesman for the Education Activist Network, which organised fees protests separately to the NUS.

He describes himself as a “dissident voice” on the NUS’s executive committee.

Shane Chowen is NUS vice president of further education and Liam Burns is president of NUS Scotland.

The final candidate, Thomas Byrne, is a first-year politics student at York University.

The Government’s plans to triple tuition fees to £9,000 a year, a threshold that is being taken up by the majority of universities, and swingeing cuts to higher education funding, are likely to dominate the conference.

One motion due to be debated this week warns it is important that the campaign against fees and cuts “remains a priority”.

“We must capture the activism of the campaign and ensure this continues over what promises to be challenging years ahead.”

Mr Porter said: “The last year has been one of the most dramatic in NUS’ history and the conference will be an opportunity to assess where we’ve reached.

“There’ll be a great deal of discussion about how we take forward our resistance to the Government’s hugely damaging attacks on students and their universities and colleges.

“There’s no denying that education in the UK is in a poorer position than it was this time last year, before a general election, before a trebling of tuition fees, and before the betrayal of a generation by power-hungry politicians but NUS is arguably in a stronger position than ever and we have won some major concessions from the Government where others have not been able to.

“The policy agreed at this conference will dictate the direction of education campaigns in the future.”