Interview: Aaron Porter – Nation Union Of Students President

23 January 2011

In a grim, insignificant tower block in Camden, a small, rather bare office, just larger than an average stationery cupboard, provides a humble setting for a man who has been at the centre of one of the most raging political controversies the new coalition government has encountered so far. It has been a tumultuous year for NUS President Aaron Porter, one that has seen a dramatic regime change, colossal cuts in the higher education sector and a trebling of university tuition fees.

Demonized by some of his own members for what has been perceived as a weak and lacklustre stance to the public spending cuts in higher education, whilst simultaneously lambasted by others for registering such an opposition at all, it has been a tough middle ground Porter has been forced to negotiate. His most virulent dissenters are the more radical of the NUS members – those who believe that the official NUS response to the proposals were woefully insufficient and altogether too compromising, and that Porter himself betrayed his own members’ best interests in favour of a more collaborative approach. Porter’s swift condemnation of any violence in the student protests, his tepid support for student occupations across the country, and the apparent failure of the NUS to wield any substantial leverage have led many to call for his resignation.  Two student unions, Birkbeck and SOAS, passed votes of no confidence in Aaron Porter, and there’s even a facebook campaign demanding his removal as President.

In the wake of the motion passed last December to see a potential trebling of university tuition fees, the question that many are asking is, what did the official campaign launched by the NUS actually achieve? “It is right to say we didn’t defeat the government on their proposals to change tuition fees”, Porter concedes, “but the NUS significantly shaped the debate. It brought the issue of tuition fees to the fore in a way the government neither wanted nor anticipated. We inflicted the biggest rebellion the government have faced to date – one of the successes of the campaign is that never again will a government jump to make decisions about students lightly.” For the person who supposedly instigated the biggest rebellion the government have faced to date, Porter is polite, personable and articulate. His suit-and-tie appearance and mannerisms are more those of a company director than student revolutionary.

Indeed, his whole approach to the issue of tuition fees can be characterised as one of reason, compromise and negotiation rather than militant opposition and radical protest. “There has been a lot of attention on the street protests, but our campaign started two years ago when we produced a fully costed alternative to raising tuition fees.” Porter has earned a reputation for elevating more moderate and gradualist forms of protest over active campaigning, preferring formal lobbying and petitioning to taking to the streets. “There’s a limit to what waving placards can achieve,” Porter agrees. “A successful campaign must employ a number of tactics; it has to apply pressure both inside and outside the room. And my experience is that having the ear of those who make the decisions, and their respect, is the best way of ensuring results.”

By negotiation and compromise, by being prepared to create a middle ground, Porter has arguably made far more of an impact than a single minded, unbending opposition would have achieved. “I am convinced we are in a much stronger position with the coalition in terms of ensuring fairer access to higher education,” he argues. Since 2008 the NUS has proposed a graduate tax as a preferable model to an increased tuition fee. “Whilst a graduate tax was not the model that was implemented, it is fair to say the new system will have some features of a graduate tax, in that the repayment will not exclusively be based on what university you went to, it will be more based on what you are earning.” It is clear that Porter feels this small concession made by the government can be mostly attributed to the NUS negotiations. He believes the lobbying and petitioning of the NUS has yielded far more sympathy from within the government than the street demonstrations could have done alone. “If all we had done was a series of protests, there is absolutely no chance we would have got anywhere near delivering the biggest backbench rebellion ever seen in the Liberal Democrat Party.”

However, this will do little to appease his more radical opponents, who argue he has reduced student politics to horse-trading, pragmatism and backroom deals, and has quite simply not made a strong enough opposition. A dichotomy has since emerged between the official campaign of the NUS, and the unofficial demonstrations and occupations organised by other groups such as ‘Defend Education’ and the ‘National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’. As a member of ‘Defend Education’ remarked, “Porter looks upon the student movement as no more than a CV opportunity, to be abandoned as soon as the scrawl of graffiti dares to interrupt his perfect form. The genuine student body is on the streets to which we been thrust by decades of counter-productive NUS bureaucracy.”

This growing divergence of the unofficial student mobilisation from the official one was most apparent on December 9th. The 300 students participating in a ‘candlelit vigil’ on the Embankment, organised by the NUS on the day of the vote, were vastly overshadowed by a crowd numbering over 20,000 demonstrating in Parliament Square.

Many hailed this bizarre decision as symptomatic of just how out of touch the NUS were with its own members. This growing resentment was exacerbated by the decision made by the NUS Executive Committee not to back two further student demonstrations in January – a “Save EMA” day on the 26th January and a “Defend Education” demonstration in London on the 29th. So why have the NUS withheld their endorsement of these student actions? “Well, we’ve already called an action on the 29th in Manchester,” Porter responds dismissively. “If students want to go to the one in London, they can go, but I’ll be encouraging the one in Manchester. There have already been lots of demonstrations in London.” Why Porter is unwilling to support both protests when the trade unions he is demonstrating with in Manchester were happy to do so, remains mystifying.

On the EMA demonstration he is slightly more forthcoming; “I will support any action if it has clear goals and is safe for students. I will not support campaign actions that are likely to descend into violence. is being organised by the same people who turned up in Parliament Square of the 9th December; the same people who refused to condemn the violence at Millbank. I can’t be sure it’s going to turn violent but I don’t believe these people are taking sufficient steps to ensure students will be safe. I don’t believe these people care whether we gain public support or lose public support – I do, and that’s why I’m not coming out and supporting that event.” However, doesn’t this emerging factionalism within the student movement imperil any chance of political influence? Surely to exert any pressure at all, we must oppose these higher education cuts from an internally unified position?

“The student movement is bigger than the NUS and that is a positive thing,” Porter replies. “We cannot organise every protest and nor should we.” A peculiar remark for someone who believes “the NUS provides the means by which the one national voice of students is represented”.

While Porter was swift to disassociate the NUS from the more violent or rowdy element of the student campaign against cuts and fees, he has attracted further criticism for so publicly condemning the activities of his own members, but not responding to the brutality of the police, so obvious and manifest on December 9th in Parliament Square, with equal severity.

Many feel that the effective imprisonment of many hundreds of students for eight hours in a police kettle merited far more outrage than a few broken windows at Millbank. However, Porter strongly disagrees that his response to the police brutality was lacklustre. “There are three statements I put out condemning police tactics – I went in front of a Select Committee which was enquiring into this matter just before Christmas in which I publicly condemned the kettling, the horse charging, and the poor facilities within the kettle. So actually I’ve done a range of things to criticise the police actions in the student demonstrations – but obviously there is a lot more interest in an NUS President criticising participants in the student protest rather than the police. There has been a lot of misreporting on this case.” So would he like to see in ban on the use of kettling?

“Yes, I believe it’s an inhumane tactic. I thought the police actions in Parliament Square outrageous and clearly despicable.”

It is clear that Porter has no tolerance for any violence or criminality in the student protests, and advocates only legitimate, peaceful demonstrations. However, there can be no dispute that these ‘unofficial’ student actions have certainly rivalled the NUS campaign in terms of media coverage and public attention, and have indeed better conveyed the anger and desperation of students than the candlelit vigils and NUS lobbying. Their mass mobilisation of disgruntled and disillusioned students has made fertile ground for a major political upheaval against this coalition and its cuts, inspiring a large following with the mantra ‘this is just the beginning’.

This element of the student campaign made headline news of student demonstrations that may otherwise have been mere footnotes at the end of media reports. In the wake of this ever- expanding movement, what is the relevance of the NUS, saddled as it is with bureaucracy, more moderate than militant, and too compromising to really represent student interests?

“Well firstly the suggestion that the NUS have been an irrelevance in this campaign is absolute pie in the sky,” he responds. “It was the NUS who put out a fully costed alternative to fees, the NUS who issued the most talked about political initiative, the NUS who organised the public demonstration in November that amassed 50,000 participants – the biggest demonstration in this country since Iraq. We have led a responsible, proactive and innovative campaign, which has held the government to account in a fearsome way, but one which I think has been responsible.”

Yes, a fearsome, but responsible campaign – this phrase perhaps best encapsulates Porter’s whole approach. Whether you see him as a wily expedient politician in the making, or the voice of reason and common sense in a debate where students could only ever hope for token concessions rather than the complete abolition of fees, he has a led an impressive opposition, one that has tempered radicalism with reason and compromise, militant activism with more formal and legitimate campaigning.

However, diplomatic political protest is all well and good when one wields great electoral and political influence – arguably, our generation does not. A mass uprising against the government spending cuts could quite conceivably bring this government to its knees – how can the small changes and compromises, wrought be parliamentary lobbying and candlelit vigils, really hope to compete?

Interview: Bryony Clarke

Photo: Jess Touschek