Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Liam Burns, NUS President-elect

By Sam Creighton

The delegates have voted, the count has been verified and the results have been announced. Liam Burns is NUS President for 2011/12. Two days seem to have really taken it out of the normally energetic Scotsman. While obviously jubilant he looks more subdued than when The Delegate interviewed him on Monday evening.

“There’s that small thing of the Scottish elections that we have on our doorstep” he replied when asked what he would be doing next, “so my focus will swing firmly back onto Scotland post-Conference.” That’s not to say that he will wait until he officially takes over on July 1st to get the ball rolling on his manifesto pledges. “After May 6th I want to start getting a move on getting an authoritative stance on not just how institutions should be funded but how students should be funded.” He’s also thinking about the long game and is planning to meet with the TUC so they can start building towards 2014 together.

Burns is not the usual NUS President, he certainly describes himself as the anti-establishment candidate. While he is taking on the mantle of the 55th President of the NUS, he is only the 13th to come from the Nations. His victory is also a bit of a coup, with even Burns himself admitting that Shane Chowen was the favourite coming into the Conference. He identified what he thinks was the turning point: “I think it was that people recognised that while I think Aaron has achieved some amazing things and that the organisation has made so many right calls, there have been some that we made wrong. I think what delegates saw was that I was being honest about that and trying to tackle that head on. Shane simply was part of those decisions.”

It’s been an unusual election for Presidency this year, with what is traditionally seen as a mere coronation, being too close to call right up until the end. Burns has nothing but praise for his opponents: “Every single candidate on that stage was credible. I don’t agree with everything that was said, but in terms of their legitimacy, and that made the election a positive and enjoyable thing.”

Burns thinks there are a lot of great ideas he can take from his opponents, he is particularly excited about Chowen’s idea of a young people’s commisision and his vision on how to turn NUS into an organisation directed by it’s individual members rather than Union officers.

His victory was secured by the left, it was the second preferences he received after Mark Bergfeld was excluded that pushed him over the top. “What I think people like Mark recognise is that I’m someone who will respect them, who will want to hear their views. We’ll have robust discussions, we won’t always agree but what’s different now is that there’s far more common ground in the issues we’re working on that we now need to occupy than there was ten years ago.”

Burns has talked a lot this campaign about how he doesn’t think there are the parliamentary mechanisms in place to bring about major changes, but there are certain things he is determined to achieve; an authoratatitive position on student support and a more united movement: “I don’t want to be to-ing and fro-ing in the pages of The Guardian between Michael Chessum and myself week on week. I hope that we will demonstrably have show that the public are still behind us in our campaign to reverse the decisions made both in public funding and also the fees regime that we currently have.”

Conducting this interview in a Dannie Grufferty shirt, Liam has a clear idea of who he wants in his team. He is backing Ed Marsh for Union Development, Usman Ali for Higher Education, Grufferty for Society and Citizenship and Toni Pearce for Further Education. “Equally exciting is the Liberation Officer elections that are coming up in the next few weeks. There are some brilliant candidates going for them. It will be a while before I see who the whole team is but I’m sure there will be some great talent.”

Will we be seeing more t-shirts with Liam’s name on next Conference? “I honestly don’t know if I’ll re-run. I’ll have to think long and hard about the timing because you could give a President a run-up to the general elections if I didn’t run for another year but if there’s anything I learnt off Aaron it’s that twelve months can change a lot.”


Interview with Phil Whyte, campaign manager for Liam Burn

By Sam Creighton

Phil Whyte, President of Strathclyde Students’ Association and campaign manager for new NUS President-elect Liam Burns, is “absolutely delighted for both Liam and for the student movement” that the candidate he has worked hard to advocate has now claimed the top job in our national union. “It’s dedication on Liam’s part that has massively paid off” Whyte explains, “it’s a great victory for the movement, with Liam at the helm we can really now go to new and exciting places.”

While delegates may view the elections as only really taking place for the few days of Conference, the truth is that they take months of preparation and hard graft. “Nothing can prepare you for a national election in any shape or form.” It was however a fun campaign to be part of: “The people who have been supporting Liam have been fantastic. Everyone believed in him and knew he was the best man for the job. He’s had the backing of every Student Association in Scotland as well as many more up and down the country. Having that base has been a fantastic resource.”

The relationship between the candidate and his campaign manager goes back a long way. “I’m a bit of a hack” Whyte explains, “I’ve been around for years, so I met Liam when he was running for NUS Scotland Deputy President back when I was a part-time officer for my own Students’ Union. I followed through to become a full-time officer at the same time as when Liam was NUS Scotland President so we developed a very strong friendship and a very strong working relationship as well.”

According to Whyte, Burns shows that there is no such thing as a natural successor to the position of NUS President and will push the student movement forward in a way that it never has been before. Find an article with the candidate himself in the next issue of The Delegate.

Interview with Sean Rillo Raczka, candidate for Vice-President Welfare position

By Sam Creighton

It’s not very often that you interview a candidate in an NUS election race who happily says they don’t really want to win, but then again it’s not often that you interview Sean Rillo Raczka – chair of Birkbeck Students’ Union, NEC member and candidate in the race of Vice-President Welfare – who has already claimed victory in an election this year and will take office in July as Vice-President of the University of London Union.

“I’m standing on a political manifesto” he explains, “I’m standing on a political slate that wants to make NUS a fighting organisation and the reason for that is that there is a real fight on, it’s a fight for our education, it’s a fight for our welfare state.” He is running in the election to raise issues, shape the debate and call NUS up on their welfare record this year which he says has been disappointing. “I’m standing for VP Welfare because I think we need to have a different approach to welfare, defending our right to protest, defending young students who are being hit over the head, we need to be chasing the BNP off our campuses, chasing out the fascist EDL, we need to be talking about liberation and integrating different groups into our Students’ Unions,” things which he said the current NUS leadership has abjectly failed to do.

Sean has been a vocal member of NUS during this controversial year and an outspoken critic of the current leadership, he explains: “I’m one of the most frequent speakers at the NEC because I’m the person who asks the difficult questions and I raise issues that are relevant to mature and part-time students and I raise issues that are pertinent to activists and I’m proud of that.”


Interview with Mark Bergfeld, NUS Presidential Candidate

By Sam Creighton,

“Does Aaron Porter represent students as a whole?” That is the short, sharp, shock of an answer from Mark Bergfeld, NUS NEC member and candidate in the race for National President, when faced with the accusation that he only voices the opinions of an already vocal minority.

A key figure in the Education Activist Network and figurehead of this year’s left slate, Bergfeld is happy to court controversy. He’s been a vocal and constant critic of the current NUS leadership. “It has been said that we need to apply the right tactic at the right time. However, continuously our leadership has failed to take the collective decision and take the right decision and take the right tactic.” On the 9th December, the day the vote on tuition fees was put before Parliament, Bergfeld claims that “we almost brought the Coalition to the brink of collapse with 30,000 students on the streets of London but at the same time our NUS decided to have a glow stick vigil to mourn the death of Higher Education.” Mark is calling for a strong line when it comes to the tactics the NUS should implement: “A petition is good, a rally is better than a petition, a demonstration is better than a rally and a strike is better than a demonstration. In that sense we need to say as a Union that the Tories have escalated to the fight, attacking every person, left right and centre and we need to escalate our tactics. We need to say at some point in time that the Coalition has abandoned negotiations and that time actually was three years ago when they didn’t put us on the table to have input in the Browne Review in the first place. Last year I famously claimed, and Porter acknowledged, that we’d suffered a major defeat by not getting anyone to sit on the Browne Review and this is how NUS’s tactics and strategy have failed the vast majority of students. ”

He says FE students have been particularly let down by the lack of leadership shown by the NUS and even claims that the organisation has told them that some cuts are necessary. He says this is terrible, explaining that “I’m putting a line forward that no cuts are necessary whatsoever, that we will fight each and every cut.”

Bergfeld has been a supporter of the more militant side of the student movement, refusing to condemn the events at Millbank, he continues to stand by these convictions, saying: “There is no such thing as a bad protestor”.

Some members on his slate, most notably Sean Rillo Raczka, have said they don’t expect to win their elections and are running to shape the debate, Mark evades this question when put to him, simply stating: “We’ll fight like we’ll win”.


Interview with current NUS President Aaron Porter

by Stuart Hewitt

Outgoing NUS President Aaron Porter spoke to the Delegate on the eve of his fifth and final NUS conference.

Much of the build up to this year’s conference has focused on whether the student movement has been divided and factionalised. However, one thing that all students can agree on is that Porter has presided over NUS in one of the most turbulent years in the union’s history. Porter is keen to stress that although a post-mortem of his tenure is needed it should be swift and decisive in order to focus on the issues of the future.

“I’m really looking forward to it as a conference, not just because it’s my final one but because it’s been a momentous year. I’m looking forward to seeing a new leadership coming to the fore of NUS and one that can take NUS forward.”

Porter was also quick to warn whoever succeeds him not to be swayed by the agendas of those “who occupy the fringes.”

The former President of Leicester University Students Union said, “Sometimes those fringe groups can be quite intimidating, they can be quite demanding. But we’re here to represent the mainstream majority view, we’re not here to be dominated by any particular extreme. Whoever gets elected cannot allow themselves to be held to ransom, particularly by those who frankly don’t have a democratic mandate.”

Porter talks reverently about Shane Chowen, the candidate he is backing to pick up the mantle of NUS President. “Shane is head and shoulders above the others because he has the ability to unite a team and present a new narrative that i don’t think the other candidates do.”

Chowen, who is currently VP for Further Education, has never been to University and although he is widely respected within the student movement some have raised this issue. Porter however prefers to see it as a positive, “There is something incredibly powerful about someone that has not yet been to university saying to the government the reason I care about the funding system and standards in our Universities is because I am yet to go there.”

But not focusing ourselves into a blame game of was it my fault, was it the hard-left’s fault or whether it was because we did too many demos or not enough demos. The time for a post-mortem needs to be short and sharp. The debate needs to be about the future.

Porter’s announcement in February that he was to step down as NUS President was a break from the union norm of two year Presidential tenures but again Porter is keen to paint this fact in a positive light. “I’m pleased i’m one of the only full-time NUS officers not to have done two years. Shouldn’t be the status quo that you do Two years should not be the status quo and it was right for me to leave because I have practically done what I wanted to do and time to move on.”

After five years of service to student politics Porter is currently weighing up his considerable options in the wider world.  Porter admitted that he has gained an engorged media profile this year due to the attention afforded the student movement this year. Several production companies have approached him with offers of presenting documentaries.

Interview in Thomas Byrne, Candidate for NUS President

By Emilie Tapping

The first day of National Conference 2011 has kicked off with delegates here as bright and early as 7am. Posters, banners and stalls are already up, everyone eager to know who is going to win the most uncertain presidential election in recent memory. Thomas Byrne strolls nervously into the media room – quietly cautious. A first year student from York, and indeed first time attendee at National Conference, Thomas Byrne is an unlikely candidate for the most prestigious position in NUS

Citing the fact that inequalities in education in the UK are greater than any other country in Brazil, Byrne wants to know why NUS has spent so much time arguing over tuition fees. He believes in market politics and that universities being reliant on students for funding will make them better at  “catering to students’ needs.” He accuses Labour and NUS of scaremongering, professing “there’s no need to talk about debt, there’s no need to talk about loans”, rebranding the new system as an alternative graduate tax to the Blueprint put forward by NUS. He claims “the biggest barrier has been language”.

One of the few delegates at this conference who believes that the new system will work out better for students he suggests that “what’s holding students back is bad schools down the line, not this specter of tuition fees.” His manifesto concentrates on reducing bureaucracy in the teaching profession to get the best teachers in to state schools and grant the “same freedoms to people lower down the scale, in the middle of the scale” than those at private schools. He’s a fan of keeping young people in training, but thinks the current system of EMA doesn’t work, and he is calling for a new “discretionary system” to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable get the support they need.

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Byrne is no longer a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party, finding that people considered his arguments as more credible when removed from party politics. Byrne believes he is a “different candidate”, offering a “proactive solution rather than crying out for what we can save of quite a failed system”. He has no delusions of grandeur; all he is looking for is to change the mind of one delegate to think that he can provide a “better future for NUS, a better future for students”.


Sophie Richardson, candidate for NUS block arrives at conference

By Joe Rennison

Sophie Richardson, candidate for NUS block and President elect at Queen Mary Students’ Union, has arrived at The Sage.

Nervous about the election she remains optimistic, saying that, “it will be a good experience whatever happens.”

She says she wants to be on block for the experience and to become more involved with NUS and the decision making process.

The are rumours that Richardson is preparing for a presidential candidacy next year, to which she denies and laughs at the suggestion of.

“I’m very excited about the next few days and am looking forward to some of the debates.”