NUS president will not seek re-election

Aaron Porter agrees to step down this April, admitting that the union needs “reinvigorating” with a

The president of the NUS, Aaron Porter, has today announced that he will not be seeking re-election in the upcoming NUS elections. He will become only the second NUS president since 1969 to not serve a second term.

Porter came to power as a wave of student activism swept the UK in response to government cuts to education funding. Porter failed to ride it and was instead swept under.

When an NUS-organised demonstration turned violent, Porter was left in the straitened position of having to condemn the damage, without aggravating the increasingly vocal left-wing membership of the union. It was a diplomatic tightrope from which he fell.

With the union critical of the direct – and often violent – action taken by some students, the movement took on a dynamic separate from the NUS, leaving the organisation looking dated and out of touch. Porter failed to offer his support to high-profile student occupations that popped up in universities across the UK throughout November and December.

The NUS president offered a mea culpa for his "dithering" and lukewarm response to them. Speaking at the UCL occupation, Porter said: "For too long the NUS has perhaps been too cautious and too spineless about being committed to supporting student activism. Perhaps I spent too long over the last few days doing the same. I just want to apologise for my dithering in the last few days." This apology did little to raise the president's standing among more ardent student protesters.

In another blow, a memo leaked to the Daily Telegraph in December showed that Porter had been prepared to cut maintenance grants to the poorest students. And in January, he had to be escorted by police and forgo a pubic appearance in Manchester after being surrounded by demonstrators calling for his resignation.

Now, in effect, they have it. With the elections in April, Porter is a lame-duck president.

Here is his full statement:

Dear All

The last few months have been momentous. Our response to the government's austerity measures will go down in the history books. We've kick-started a wave of student action, brought the coalition to its knees, and we've shaped the public debate on education in an unprecedented fashion. This campaign began over three years ago – a long-term strategy to deliver a real alternative to a market in fees, and it's a campaign I have been heavily involved in from the very beginning as a student officer in Leicester, as vice-president (higher education) and then as NUS president.

The government's decision to treble tuition fees was a bitter pill to swallow – and whilst a number of concessions were secured, notably for part-time students as well as an increased threshold of repayment for all graduates, this was still not the outcome we wanted. Thousands of students will now decide that higher education is not for them – and the ones that do get to go will be plunged into an era of market chaos. It's a tragedy – and one that requires relentless pressure, both locally and nationally, to ensure that it is exposed and replaced with something better as soon as possible.

So this new regime brings with it a new landscape, and I believe NUS now needs reinvigorating into the next phase of this campaign. After considerable soul-searching, I believe there needs to be a new president to lead the student movement into that next phase. As a result, I've resolved not to seek re-election at National Conference this year.

The challenge for a new national president will be great. They'll need to support students' unions and student officers to get the best deal for students, whilst running a major national campaign to defeat damaging marketisation in education. They'll need to build activism and radicalism on the ground whilst defending legitimate, democratic students' unions from attack from our enemies. Above all, they'll need a fresh outlook – because if we are to reach out, and engage with, the full diversity of our membership, we need to move beyond the tired rhetoric and redundant tactics of some factional groups.

I want to say thank you to the hundreds of students and student officers who have been so supportive this year, and indeed for the nominations for a second term which I had already been sent. It goes without saying that with a white paper on its way, the next four months remain a huge opportunity for the organisation, and I will be relentless in ensuring I do the very best I can in the role.

We should continue to be proud of what we have achieved, and it has been an honour to be president at this time. If I have one criticism of this year, it would be that we have not been quick enough to talk about our achievements – and I hope we can pause for a moment to remedy this.

Let's push on to make sure we credit ourselves for what we have achieved, and ensure we work together to push NUS and the student movement to the next level.

In unity,

Aaron Porter

(Hat-tip: Liberal Conspiracy)

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt