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24 May 2007

Stick to what you know best

5 Challenges for the next Prime Minister and while we're at it here's 5 for the NUS.

By Ben Ullmann

With the imminent departure of Tony Blair, all our attention has naturally turned to Prime Minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown. Groups from all sectors are now speaking out to try and influence the next leader of this country.

The National Union of Students (NUS) recently released a pamphlet listing five challenges to the new Prime Minister. They include challenges to make prescriptions, dental care and eye tests free for all student, to keep the interest on student loans linked to inflation and a call for an equal minimum wage. The focus of these challenges is not to be all encompassing but rather to achieve some quick wins at the beginning of Gordon Brown’s premiership that if implemented would make a real difference to the lives of students.

Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with the pamphlet which is disappointing but not utterly surprising.

The National President, Gemma Tumelty has come under fire from certain sections of the student movement because the pamphlet does not include a mention of top-up fees. Failure to mention the fight against fees has been characterised as ‘defeatist’ and another example of ‘NUS cosying up to the Labour government’. In her response, the President quite rightly asserts “Top up fees are clearly a priority for NUS, however, these were to be five challenges that could be met by the Prime Minister in his first 100 days. Top up fees – as much as we might want them to – are not going to be.”

It’s encouraging to see the President stand her ground on this and not make a knee-jerk U-turn to placate the ultra-left in NUS who haven’t been representative of students for a long time. It is right for the national representative body for students to be challenging the new Prime Minister on our behalf and in this way. And in the spirit of setting challenges, I have devised five of my own challenges for the NUS leadership in their next 100 days in office.

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1. Research – When NUS makes a case to the Government on Higher Education funding or on any other issue it must back it up with research. The world of Westminster politics is dominated by sophisticated lobbying from special interest groups and policy shops and it is no longer good enough to lobby government with marches and sit-down protests. Research-based arguments are the key to a successful, campaigning NUS.

2. Know Your Limits – The NUS has recently acknowledged it can’t be all things to all people. It’s tried in the passed and understandingly has failed miserably. As well as narrowing down its remit, the organisation must understand the limits of its influence. It can have an influence over education policy, student rights and pay equity. It cannot and does not have an influence over foreign policy. Focusing on the ‘bread & butter’ student issues will naturally make NUS more credible and ultimately more powerful.

3. ‘Free’ Education – The next challenge to the NUS is to rethink its policy on ‘free’ education. It is not unreasonable to ask students to contribute to the cost of their degree given the educational and financial return they will receive from it. Clearly the burden must be shared by the state, which benefits from having an educated work force, and that is where the debate must lie. In principle there is value in asking students to contribute. Politically the misnomer of ‘free’ education is a pipe dream that no taxpayer or government will ever consider returning to.

4. Representation – At present, the power within NUS is held primarily by unrepresentative interest groups who may or may not have a student focused agenda. However, the NUS is financially supported by Students’ Unions reduced in power because of flawed democratic structures. In the upcoming no-holds barred governance review, voted through this year, the NUS must readdress this balance of power and give students, through their Students’ Unions, the voice they deserve.

5. Relevancy – The fifth and final challenge is for NUS to stay relevant to its members. It cannot be an effective organisation if it is not championing the issues that its members deem important. At the moment NUS is representative of its activists but not of its members. The student movement is 5.4 million strong and encompasses, HE, FE, mature, international, postgraduate, LGBT, ethnic minority, disabled students and more. Being relevant is not an easy task, but must be a goal we strive to achieve.

It’s been said the longest march starts with the first step. We could all do with taking some steps over the next hundred days.

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