Catrin Lewis interviews Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students.
The national president, Liam Burns, was first elected to the role in 2011, winning a second term at NUS Conference in 2012. His platform was one of implementing a graduate tax rather than using the existing student loan repayment system; allowing students to take more control over their institutions; and ensuring that students are more financially secure.
What does the NUS mean for students?
Being at university is literally life changing, the best years of your life. But it’s not all easy going, it’s not an easy ride. There are challenges from fees, student debt, hardship, what house you have and where you live, and how much money you’ve got in your pocket.
NUS does two things: one, to make sure your Students’ Union is as strong as it can be, with its societies and campaigns for change. It also stands up for students on a national basis. NUS Wales has done stuff like stopping the cap on tuition fees being lifted, it’s managed to win tens of millions in student financial support, and has now put through legislation to
protect Students’ Union funding. All of these things are helping to protect Students’ Unions right across Wales; saying we have a right to education, and a right to be supported in that education.
What are the biggest challenges facing students now?
Obviously the tuition fees are a huge challenge, which puts an incredible strain on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland about what they’re going to do. At the moment, no Welsh student will pay more than they used to, but the funding for that is precarious, it’s unstable. The government has just released a white paper in Wales on the structure of higher education, and that’s a huge challenge for students in Wales. There’s quite a different type of education that we could fight for here, one that’s free of price tags. We could do things differently here in Wales from what the rest of the UK has decided to do.
How do you think we can best achieve our wants?
We need to keep them on the agenda of politicians and decision makers, especially in preparation for the next election. The student vote is huge, and at the end of the day, investing in education is investing in the society of tomorrow. We don’t shout out enough about what’s great about the student movement, such as volunteering in the community. We can’t rest on our laurels too much.
So do you think that party politics has a part to play within NUS politics as well?
Massively in the sense that we have to work with all political parties, as at the end of the day they all have very different views on how students should be supported, and how higher education should be funded. Some we agree with on particular issues, some we won’t, but there is always rationality in engaging across the political spectrum. Party politics by its nature articulates how we value education, and that’s why we have to make sure that politicians of every colour have the right values when it comes to how our education is funded and structured.
When you’ve got universities such as Aston and Southampton who have chosen to disaffiliate, do you believe that NUS is as strong as it used to be?
We’re much stronger. 98% of all students in the UK are in membership. Of the unions that are out, we’re having fairly positive discussions with Southampton, they’re having a referendum coming up next year. We have other positive discussions with other students’ unions across the UK. We generate tens of millions of pounds for students’ unions every single year. For those unions that decide not to be part of the NUS, it’s their students’ decision.
You’ve called for a national demo in November, why should students go along and show support for it?
Conference called for a national demo back in April, and rightly so in my opinion. What we’re trying to say is that our future is being destroyed. It doesn’t matter what part of the UK you’re in, whether it’s tuition fees if you live in Scotland, youth unemployment across the board, or whether it be the impossibility of getting on the housing market, all these things are just taking away our futures. It’s about time we told not just government, but parliament, that they can’t just keep hacking on about the squeezed middle, when there is a whole raft of people being hit much harder.
The reason we’re demonstrating is two-fold. One, that we start putting in place markers for the next general election to say to those politicians that betrayed us that we’ve not gone away. Two that, we have a positive vision of what the future should look like for us and that involves funding education, it involves unemployment, it involves empowering people who have had their rights taken away.
So it’s just to show everyone that we’re still here?
Not just that, I don’t think that it’s the absence of a bill from Parliament in England, or making sure that we say we do believe in education right across the UK, but it’s about telling politicians that they have to perk up. As they start writing their manifestos now, as they are doing, they’ll know that this is a big vote that they have to appease. I do think that it’s the right thing to do, but it will not be an action in itself.