Hundreds of students gathering outside a conference centre in Newcastle Gateshead, no it is not another student party, but the NUS’ annual conference; 3 days of networking, discussions and debates on student politics and policies and a forum on where to take the student movement over fees and funding, writes Vicky Wong.
For the first time the NUS conference was streaming live online, meaning that student media hacks could stay at home completing their dissertation (after all, that’s why we are at University and I’m sure that is something the NUS would understand), and still keep up to date with what was going on in Newcastle Gateshead. Up to 300 students followed the action online.
NUS savvy students took to the Twittosphere in large numbers providing regular updates and opinions on the events as they unfolded in Newcastle. Some of biggest news to emerge from the event not only included the reaffiliation of Durham University to the NUS, the introduction of a national accreditation scheme for students in volunteering, Lembit Opik’s address to the conference, questions regarding the accessibility of the infamous row X in the conference hall, the controversial call of censure against one of the NUS presidential candidates, and the spectacular chairing skills of NUS VP Welfare, Ben Whittaker.
Headlining the NUS conference was the election of NUS Scotland President, Liam Burns, as NUS President-elect, beating favourite, Shane Cowen to the position after three rounds of voting. The biggest challenge facing the NUS however is uniting the extremists with the moderates, which commentators observe as the reason for Burns’ victory; whilst Bergfeld advocated more militant activism from students and the NUS, Cowen shied away from direct action, preferring the negotiating table. Burns on the other hand appealed to both direct activists and negotiators, and his appeal to both sides led to was manifest in his election victory.
Representation appeared to be the biggest buzzword of the NUS conference; how do we represent FE students? Students with disabilities? Students who are Conservatives? The funding debate brought to light the divide between Conservative and Labour students. Whilst many acknowledge that the NUS is occupied predominantly by Labourites, this divide was only brought to the surface in the call of censure against NUS Presidential candidate, and NUS block member-elect, Mark Bergfeld.
The call of censure was made on the grounds that Bergfeld’s rhetoric alienated students who were either against direct action or who were conservatives. Talk of the censure caused outrage amongst the student Twitteratti, calling it a disgrace to the democratic nature of the NUS if a member were to be censured. The call for censure fell.
Another issue to come into the spotlight of NUS conference was the tenure in which officers could serve on the NUS; many of those holding positions have been involved in student politics for a few years, leaving a considerable gap in between when they were last students up until now. Indeed the first few tweets to emerge onto Twitter under the hashtag, #nusnc11 questioned the ages of those currently holding senior positions within the NUS and have been involved in student politics for a number of years, including Aaron Porter, who is in his mid-twenties, and Ed Marsh (re-elected VP Union Development).
But most crucial is that Scotsman Liam Burns who aside from also being in his mid-twenties and is President for NUS Scotland, and did not have to pay for tuition fees.
With the NUS now adopting a more radical and politicized role, Liam Burns’ biggest challenges not only include uniting only how to unite members and action, but how best to approach the funding debate now that students have discovered this newfound political activism.