By Sam Creighton
It’s the night before Conference begins and the Presidential candidates are holding secret courts and clasping hands, hoping to win over wavering delegates. Liam Burns, current NUS Scotland President and hopeful in the national presidential race, was charming the crowds in a bid to close the ground between himself and the current favourite, Shane Chowen.
“It’s not surprising I’m the underdog” he said “I’m not the establishment candidate as I’m challenging what the establishment are saying about some of our wins and how we take some of our movement forward. I don’t see it as a problem though”. While his endorsement by Labour Students means his anti-establishment credentials remains to be seen, his immediate personability shows why Scotland are so staunchly backing him.
Burns has a strong record in Scotland, holding back the implementation of tuition fees and, against a backdrop of austerity, securing a further £50 million investment into student support over the last two years. “I think there’s a lot of good news stories from Scotland” he declared, adding that “we should rightly be parading them to the Coalition government and saying there is an alternative”. How transferrable is this success though? Higher Education in Scotland exists in a totally different set of circumstances to that of England. Burns however, sees this remove as one of his key strengths, explaining that he’s been “insulated from the consumerisation that’s happened down here.” He strongly argues that his experience and narrative places him perfectly to lead the fight for students to be “co-producers” rather than consumers.
It’s been a controversial year for the NUS and Burns is not too shy to say where he disagrees with the party message. “I think we got our line wrong post the National Demo, I think that when we went straight to condemning what we thought was the hard left we got a justified back lash because it wasn’t just the hard left, we’re in a time now when direct action is absolutely legitimate”. He sees the need to utilise both lobbying and the more militant side of the student movement and he claims this puts him above some of his opponents who “try to treat the two in isolation”. His aim is to find a new way to move forward in the fees campaign and to leave behind the dogmatism of sticking rigidly to one of these traditional tactics which he says have both “lost”. He’s also quick to point out that this divide can be over-stated, declaring that “I’m not convinced of what the the pages of The Guardian would like to believe is a massive fifty-fifty split that students are somehow all occupying buildings or saying that we want lobbying. There is a middle ground and what I think it’s about is trying to pull in those tensions that exist between the two sides. There has to be a different narrative and it has to marry up those two different agendas.”
Momentum is one of the key words of Burns’s campaign, he feels that it is something lacking in the current movement that needs to be revived. To achieve this he’s proposed an annual conference for young people and an yearly national demonstration. “We’re not going to be here in three years time when this debate becomes real again” he explains “and what I’m really clear on is that we need that generation to have ownership of it. We have a whole generation of students coming into their first year who will be paying 9k fees, who have had their EMA snatched away from them. These students need to show that there is a national purpose as well as a national movement.”
While the issue of fees will inevitably dominate Conference, like all candidates, Burns wants to draw attention to other areas as well. He is pushing for a rethink of how the NUS approaches student support. He says that in a climate where SUs are negotiating with their colleges of different levels of bursaries and fee waivers NUS should be able to provide them with solid evidence and statistics as to which option is better for students.
While he obviously hopes to win, Liam Burns has no delusions that he will go down in the annals of history and he feels that if any of the candidates are hoping to make substantive change then they are running for the wrong job. “One of the sad things is that I don’t think the next NUS President is going to achieve much on the national level at all, I don’t think the parliamentary mechanisms are there. I’m not sure that the opportunities are going to lend themselves to making policy shifts, what I’m clear on is that this is going to be about building a foundation, about going into schools and getting the next generation of activists and making sure that next time we have far more momentum behind our campaign that we did this time round.”