Liam Burns dissects the impact of the tuition-fees campaign as the NUS takes to the streets once more
This week, thousands of university and college students from across the UK will march through the streets of London. It will be the first national demonstration organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) since 10 November 2010, when a few hundred protesters split off from the main 50,000-strong march and attacked the Conservative Party headquarters at 30 Millbank. It’s easy to argue that Millbank helped establish our current political narrative – an unpopular government acting against the will of the public. A few weeks after the first comprehensive spending review since the election, and a few weeks before the vote on removing the tuition-fee cap, Millbank was the first public, collective expression of visceral anger at the direction of policy. Aside from the significant knock-on impact it had on the higher education sector north of the border, the rise in tuition fees gave the SNP one of its most effective wedges to drive between the Scottish and UK governments. Millbank foreshadowed the growth of the Occupy movement, and the inability of the police to contain riots the following year; it was also around then that the rot in the UK Government’s poll ratings set in, with the Liberal Democrats’ numbers dropping into single figures for the first time, and Labour consistently outpolling the Tories. Neither party has yet recovered.
Looking back at the pledge that started it all, NUS president Liam Burns feels that his own organisation has had to adapt to a new political reality. The NUS’ critics claim that the pledge, the 2010 demonstration and the whole Vote for Students campaign was a failure; Burns concedes that “it didn’t have the ultimate impact we wanted”. As any lobbyist will tell you, having a politician publicly pledge his or her support only to repudiate your campaign in the division chambers is generally considered a significant weakness. But political pressure did result in some secondary gains around part-time student loans and the threshold of repayment, Burns insists, and you need only look at the Scottish Liberal Democrats to work out the impact that the tuition-fee debate has had, long after the 2010 march and parliamentary vote.
Indeed, the NUS isn’t about to forget or forgive the 39 sitting MPs that signed and then broke the pledge. “We’ve come off the back of a general election where MPs flat out lied. They u-turned in a way that we’re not going to forget before 2015,” says Burns. “We know that stepping off those coaches in 2010 were the student leaders of today, and we have three years until 2015.” This year’s march is therefore perfectly timed, he says, to stoke the feeling “that the democratic process has been seriously undermined” amongst the student leaders that will be part of the next general election campaign.
The political ripples of the broken tuition-fees pledge have spread out beyond the electoral results. The NUS campaign was already unprecedented before 2010, in terms of the number of candidates signed up to vote a specific way on a single issue. When many of them voted the opposite way, the pledge took on a different meaning. “We have defined the whole narrative – [look at] Nick Clegg’s video,” Burns says. “He didn’t apologise for breaking a promise, he apologised for making it in the first place. I don’t get how politicians are going to act in a way where they don’t make promises in the future. I don’t know how the electorate would buy into that and I think people would feel deeply disenfranchised.
“That’s not actually about the issue of tuition fees, that’s about the democratic principle that there should be some binding obligation to follow through on the promises that you make when you run for election.” That has raised questions about how election manifestos will be written and presented now that coalition government is a realistic prospect, not a novelty. Whatever the political parties come up with, for campaign groups like the NUS the impact is already clear. “We weren’t ready for the coalition negotiations,” Burns says. “We had a large number of parliamentarians promise not to raise fees. I think it caught all campaigning organisations off guard, but we weren’t in there to make that one of the red-line issues.”
Finding a way to influence decisions when two parties are in talks behind closed doors will be key to preparing for the next election, but the campaign toolbox has been robbed of a key weapon. In the run-up to the 2010 general election, some parliamentary candidates, even within the Liberal Democrats, expressed discomfort at being encouraged to sign; it’s now known that those concerns were held at the highest level of the party. In 2015, no candidate will be caught dead in the same room as a pledge. Campaign groups of all kinds, particularly in the third sector, have to rethink their strategies. “People like Shelter, Oxfam, Amnesty, they’re all looking at this issue and thinking, ‘Well, what do we do now? How do we pull those levers?’” says Burns, adding: “I don’t have the answer to it.”
Thanks in part to that changed landscape, this years’ march will be very different. There is no new policy being discussed, no votes to try and influence – and hopefully, no violence on the day. Burns sees it as an “exciting” chance to “set the agenda rather than constantly reacting to it”, although he does concede that it will be a “tougher job” to motivate his members around the slogan of ‘Educate, Employ, Empower’, which was chosen in part to help implicate Scottish students unaffected by higher fees and the abolition of the EMA, but faced with high youth and graduate unemployment. “Employment is one of the biggest things talked about on campuses now and there seems to be very little work being done to deal with that crisis.” Students’ unions at universities like Edinburgh and Aberdeen, where large numbers of RUK students have been affected by the rise in tuition fees, are “right up for it”, a feeling confirmed by senior figures within those institutions. “People recognise unemployment is not something that’s the purview of the Scottish Government; they will want to make their voices heard as well.”
At the end of this, his second and final term as president, Burns could make an impact on Scottish politics if he chose to, but he says he won’t follow the well-worn path between the NUS president’s office and the Labour benches at Westminster. His beginnings in student activism were as non-political as his eventual end – “It wasn’t as if I was political,” Burns says. “When I first went to university I wouldn’t have been able to articulate the difference between Labour and Conservative. It wasn’t something that was much discussed in my household.” As an undergraduate at Heriot-Watt University, it wasn’t the fight over student debt or the graduate endowment that brought him into activism, but the lack of exam scripts to study from on the brand new course he was taking. That’s what’s special about students’ unions – they take people and create active citizens – not just in politics and campaigning but also in volunteering, and engagement in ways other than just democratic. You find your politics, but that’s not party politics; that’s about values and things that you get angry about, first of all in the context of your campus, then in wider education, then probably wider still in more societal terms, but that’s where it started.”
For now, his priority is getting the political establishment to respond to the NUS’ new, wider message, and prevent its traditional allies from backsliding under cover of the Coalition’s own unpopular decisions. Burns is wary of Labour’s position on tuition fees of reducing the cap to £6,000 and warns against the party taking the policy into the next general election. “That isn’t good enough. You can’t have a majority of parliament say they won’t increase fees at all and expect us to get excited about a policy of doubling it.” Burns says politicians are to blame for creating the public perception of graduates as a burden on society, a message that he says is at odds with Scotland’s humanist tradition. There is an implicit warning there for Scottish Labour: think again about your rhetoric around universalism.
“I really hope they don’t go down this route, about [questioning] the public good of education, further and higher,” says Burns. “You more than get your money back from having more graduates, you don’t get less. One of [the] things with universalism is, if you take it all away, then you will get parts of society that no longer accept that you redistribute to parts of society that need it. Everybody needs a slice of the cake somewhere. Down here we’re encouraging Labour to reclaim the ground that higher education is a public right and good, that it is an economic must, and that we need to go in a very different direction of how you fund it.” Given the fallout from the events of two years ago, what the impact will be of taking that message to the streets is anyone’s guess.