by Joe Rennison
Shane Chowen is the current NUS Vice-President for Further Education. He is the only candidate running for the position of NUS President that has not been to University. With this in mind, criticism of his candidacy has focused largely on his ability to represent university students.
“It’s important to point out that two thirds of NUS membership are in Further Education,” he says. “That’s an incredibly diverse group of people.”
He adds: “The student movement is a lot broader than just the typical 18-24 year old university student. I’m not going to skirt the fact that I haven’t been to university because that’s a choice that I’ve made.”
Chowen continues, keen to emphasise the fact that due to his current role within NUS he has been around the issues facing Higher Education, as well as those facing Further Education.
“Over the past few years I have been heavily involved with people around the HE sector. I haven’t been to university but I have been at the forefront of the campaigns NUS has led on HE funding.”
As part of the current executive, Chowen also stands with some of the weight of criticism that NUS has had to sustain. Aaron Porter, the current President, is backing Chowen as his successor. However, with all the controversy that surrounds the current President, is Chowen really the, “change” that Porter thinks is needed for NUS?
“I don’t think that having Aaron back me is going to hinder my campaign,” says Chowen. “There have been times when we have disagreed on issues and there have been times when we have agreed on many issues.” He adds that it isn’t fair to judge people based on who is backing them. He wants to be judged based on policy and on his vision for the future of NUS.
The idea of a divided student movement has been central to much of the analysis of the student uprising over the past year. The idea that factionalism has reigned over solidarity. “I think we need to get out of this culture of categorising people into us and them,” says Chowen. “We need to realise that we are all fighting for the same goal.”
Much of the division has circulated around the legitimacy of direct action as a tactic to be used to propagate student opinion. Chowen is clear that he supports local democracy and that if individual Students’ Unions support a local direct action then so will he.
“There may well be a time in the next year where universities go into occupation and NUS should take the lead, with students’ unions, as to whether to support it.”
Chowen adds: “Of course we’re going to disagree with tactics, but if a Students’ Unions back an occupation then so will I but if an SU doesn’t then it is not for NUS to wade in and undermine local democracy.”
Chowen criticises the reaction to events at Milbank Tower, arguing that violence became, “wound up” with the occupation and treated as the same thing. Chowen criticised any violence that might have been seen at the protest outside the tower but feels this needs to be separated from a legitimate occupation.
“What I resent, to an extent, is that this influenced the way NUS saw all direct action,” he says.
“It’s not for NUS to tell people what they can and can’t do. But it is for us to put forward a policy that we believe is the best way to achieve what we’re fighting for.”
“I think it is actually quite naïve and foolish in some ways to suggest that there is a list of easy things to do to unite all of these groups; we disagree on tactics and we disagree on some policy positions, but there are things we agree on.”
Chowen says that the main disagreement between many of the student groups that surfaced during the protests were over tactics and that this disagreement was, “unnecessary.”
“We join forces when the time is right and those discussions need to take place, which they haven’t done previously.”
Chowen adds that, “to argue that we are a fractured movement is to assume that we are a homogeneous movement.” Chowen re-asserts his commitment to the diversity of NUS and argues that within such diversity differences of opinion are bound to occur.
However, he goes on to say that, “we all have similar values despite our differences. We have to stick to a strategy that is democratically decided by our national conference.”
Chowen considers it to be a, “realistic chance” that the Government’s Higher Education reforms can be reversed. “There are cracks appearing in this coalition,” he says. He cites a “u-turn” by the government on EMA. “The process that they are going in, pushing policy through at record speed. It is only a matter of time before their HE reforms are shown to be unworkable and unfair on students.”
Chowen argues that the Government’s proposal of introducing variable fees hasn’t worked because most universities, “look to be charging in the upper quartile.”
He says that it is important for NUS to work with other organisations to, “expose these cracks” in the coalition government.
“I don’t want to look at HE reforms and tuition fees in isolation,” he says. Chowen calls for support of trade unions: “We have so much in common with the trade union movement that it would be absolutely catastrophic to turn our backs on them.
“If we turn our back on the trade unions now then our fight against HE reforms becomes obsolete.”
We offered Shane Chowen the opportunity to conduct a recorded interview but due to prior commitments he declined in favour of a telephone interview.