Liam Burns

27th May 2011 at 01:00
The new UK president of the NUS is proud of his time in Scotland, particularly winning an extra pound;15m for college bursaries, but he admits he is walking into chaos down south. His task for the next year? `Stopping the worst from happening .'

What was your first thought when you found out you had won the election for NUS UK president?

Huge excitement, but equal measures of just being really nervous. The reality is that in the next year, there is no parliamentary mechanism to make the win that we want, which is full reversal of the current fees regime. In saying that, it would be the biggest win the student union has ever seen, so to be part of that and laying the groundwork is really exciting.

What do you think is the main issue facing higher and further education in Scotland?

Student support: one in three thinks about dropping out; the majority are working over the recommended hours, part-time; over 50 per cent are in some sort of commercial credit and that is because we are legislated to be below the poverty line. For further education, it is absolutely the same issue. Our success in getting an extra pound;15 million for college bursaries will plug the gap for a while, but it won't be the end of the story.

For college students, the cuts to college funding are also a top issue. We have had mass redundancies going on across the board; we are now seeing a lot of colleges cutting specific subjects. If I am being honest, it is one of the areas where we took our eyes off the ball. What we did during the budget process was say: "Well, we will leave this to one side and we will focus on bursaries". It was a political choice.

What do you think is your greatest achievement as NUS Scotland president?

I can tell you NUS Scotland's greatest achievement. By far the most satisfying campaign that we have won was Budget for Bursaries and going from a pound;1.7 million cut to bursaries to an investment of pound;15 million. Over 40,000 emails sent from across Scotland, not just students but friends and family, local actions happening all over the place, all in the space of three months. I just don't think any other campaign organisation can claim such a huge win in that way.

Any regrets?

I think we have now got ourselves in a position where politicians can rightly say, "Well, we did what you wanted us to", because we didn't talk about the college funding aspect. We have always been clear that the thing we are dead against is the price tag and the political parties have said they want no (graduate) contribution. We will take that, but they have to deliver on improving student support. The deep regret I'll have is if we have another three years of parties saying "we kept education `free'", and I know the poorest students are having to work over 20 hours a week, having to take out pound;2,000 of commercial credit. If I have played that wrong, I would be really disappointed.

Lecturers have raised concerns that students come into colleges and universities struggling with basics like literacy and numeracy - is that something that has been raised with you?

I don't buy that. I think some of it is about what makes the funniest after-dinner speech a lecturer can give. Higher education used to be about the creme de la creme doing knowledge-pushing research with only about 5 to 10 per cent of the population going. Clearly, that has changed, and the purpose has changed with it. I would say that making sure we get the largest amount of people who can get that bit of paper that gets you the foot in the door at that interview for the job with more pay and more influence is the purpose of education now.

How do you assess the situation you are walking into down south?

It's chaos. They are talking about a pound;1 billion deficit, because the Office of Fair Access, the most toothless organisation ever to be established, has not rejected a single university saying that it would charge pound;9,000 fees. That means that the average is now looking like pound;8,600 - the Government's economics was not built on that model, so what are they going to do? I guess one of the things I would like to say is: "If you just admit you are wrong, that is not a bad thing". Our job is to try and make sure we don't accept this as the status quo. I think my job for the next year is about treading water and stopping the worst from happening.

The last president decided not to stand again in the wake of the protests down south. How do you plan to deal with this kind of anarchist element?

If you want to smash stuff up, if you want to harm anyone, then you will not have my support - I will happily stand in front of a camera and say that you are wrong. Our reaction, to Millbank specifically, was to presume that anyone there, in the building or on the periphery, was somehow involved and we condemned the lot of them. In fact, there were lots of really angry college students who have had their EMA (education maintenance allowance) ripped away from them, university students who are being priced out of education, and they were not smashing things. But occupying the building of a government that has inflicted a lot of this on them, that is not necessarily that disproportionate. So we need to be a lot clearer on what we support while being absolutely resolute that if you want to start causing vandalism, you don't have our support.


Born: Glenrothes, 1984 Education Physics degree from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

Career: School officer, vice-president (education and welfare) and president at Heriot-Watt student union; depute and then president of NUS Scotland. Voted president of NUS UK in April, to start on 1 July.

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