New NUS president is first without a degree

12th April 2013 at 01:00
Toni Pearce has `a vision for the whole education system'

The National Union of Students (NUS) has for the first time elected a president who has not attended university - Toni Pearce, the current vice- president for further education.

A former Cornwall College student, Ms Pearce won 424 of the total 732 votes to take the presidency in the first round of voting. Her nearest rival, Vicki Baars, polled 210 votes, while Peter Smallwood earned 91 votes.

After the result was announced on Tuesday, Ms Pearce hugged the outgoing president, Liam Burns, who had backed her campaign. "It's pretty humbling and very exciting. I'm not sure it's sunk in just yet," she told TES.

Ms Pearce's election is the culmination of a transformation in the NUS' approach to FE students, which began in 2005 when the union changed the rules on voting for its vice-president for FE so as to exclude university students.

Kat Fletcher, president at the time of the change, said the union had been "deficient" in its representation of FE students, which make up the majority of NUS members.

The outcome of the election, the second time a college student has stood for president, reflects this change in the status of FE within the union, Ms Pearce said. "I would think it's hugely significant," she said. "It's not about me, but it's really telling and exemplifies how far we have come as a union, that we've come from a place where we have never had a president from an FE college.

"Now we've elected someone not because they're from the FE sector but because they have a vision for the whole education system. That's what really counts. It's about having a unified vision across the student movement.

"When I first came to the NUS conference, I didn't think that it would be possible for me, or someone like me, to be national president. It's a testament to the work that the NUS has done behind the scenes, making sure students from FE are represented, and also to the campaigns we've been running on things like Care to Learn. The concessions that we've won have been huge."

Among the achievements Ms Pearce based her campaign on were the retention of Care to Learn - a pound;41 million fund that provides childcare for young parents in education - and ensuring that the loans of Access to Higher Education students are written off if they progress to a degree course.

Ms Pearce's two-year maximum term will mean that she is likely to lead the union into the next general election, which she pledged in her manifesto to "win for students". She said she will campaign for an effective advice service for students of all ages, and for a single, centralised applications system for all of the education sector, arguing that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is "inaccessible" and "failing students".

"We need to make sure that the student movement is in a position to be a powerful force in the general election," she said. "Student financial support is frankly dire across much of FE and (higher education). There's a complete lack of information, advice and guidance."

But Ms Pearce said she would not campaign to restore the education maintenance allowance. Instead she is calling for a new and improved system of financial support, which would be open to students of all ages.

She also said that the NUS needs to focus more on the crisis of youth unemployment, arguing that the union has failed to face up to "the biggest problem of our generation". "We have a responsibility as a movement not to close our eyes to this crisis any longer," she said in her manifesto.

Her successor as Cornwall College Students' Union president, Joe Vinson, followed in her footsteps once again, after he was elected vice-president for FE. Backed by Ms Pearce and outgoing president Mr Burns, he called for colleges to be banned from introducing hidden charges and campaigned for fees and loans for over-24s undertaking apprenticeships to be removed: "because no one should be charged fees to learn and receive poverty pay in return".

Mr Vinson said he would campaign for deprived college students to receive free meals, as they do in schools, and would oppose education secretary Michael Gove's "archaic" A-level reforms. If Mr Gove could take his driving test seven times before passing, A-level students should have no limit on the number of resits they can take, he said.


2013: Elected NUS national president.

2011-13: NUS vice-president (further education), during which time she:

Won pound;41 million for student parents through Care to Learn.

Fought to ensure Access to Higher Education fees are written off.

Got the NUS to engage with offender learners for the first time, through the Prisoners' Education Trust.

2009-11: Cornwall College Students' Union president and NUS national executive committee FE zone representative.

Photo credit: Sarah LeeGuardian

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