Interview: NUS president explains why pragmatism is the best politics

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On Tuesday, as Barack Obama was preparing to take control of the world’s only superpower, change had come to Wolverhampton.

Members of the National Union of Students (NUS) voted by “an overwhelming margin” to modernise at an extraordinary conference in that fairest of West Midlands conurbations.

It was the end of a decade-long struggle to transform the NUS into a more streamlined organisation realistic about the future of futher education.

The extraordinary conference’s decision was a vindication for Wes Streeting, the NUS President who turned 26 earlier this week.

Just after his election last April, the NUS voted to drop the principle of only arguing for free education, a policy backed by the pragmatic Streeting. A Clause 4 moment, if you will.

A new core constitution passed in November was attacked by vocal left-wingers as anti-democratic and a power grab by the union’s officials.

The NUS says it will now be able to concentrate its efforts on campaigning for a fairer funding system for higher education ahead of the government’s review this year, and prioritising the protection of students in the face of the economic downturn.

The annual conference will be “streamlined” and policy will be discussed in five “zones,” each with their own conference.

A new National Executive Council will also be set up to direct political strategy, while an NUS Board will ensure that the organisation runs “efficiently and on the right side of the law.”

Overseeing this institutional transformation is Wes Streeting, a wily political and tactical operator after four years on the union’s National Executive Committee.

There is a likeable touch of Del Boy about him, but he is assured, in contol and while he looks like he would be incapable of hurting a fly, no-one rises through the notoriously vicious ranks of student politics by being angelic.

As Vice President (Education) from 2006 until 2008 he was one of the loudest voices calling for a realistic approach to what the NUS can be.

That is, “representative, relevant and more focused on influencing the debate and students than shouting from the sidelines and having doors slammed in our face,” as Streeting told just after his election.

On the day that Tony Blair went to Washington to pick up his Presidential Medal of Freedom, Streeting sat down with to discuss accusations he acts like Mugabe, the criminal career of his grandfather and why BNP members are not welcome in his union. The government has announced new “graduate intern” programmes. 400,000 graduates a year are entering a catastrophic job market. Do you support the new initiative?

Wes Streeting: We do, I think the prospect for graduates in particular this year is a lot more bleak than it has been for a long time. That has got students who are in their final year or their second year really quite worried about their prospects post-graduation.

With student debt at record levels I think it’s really important that students are able to find a job and start paying off that debt, and I think that while these internships are by no means perfect and are certainly not the permanent graduate job our graduates will be aspiring to, it will allow them to avoid the unemployment lists.

Last time we hit a recession in this country unemployment was allowed to spiral out of control and no one seemed to care, so at least the Government is recognising there’s a problem and looking to tackle it.

The number of graduates in non-graduate jobs is as high as 40% from some universities. Surely there are too many people coming out of university?

The danger if you go down that route is first of all you place an artificial cap on people’s aspirations and you limit people’s potential.

History shows us that when that happens there is not a universal impact on young people’s aspirations, there is a disproportionate impact on the aspirations of people from working class backgrounds.

Often when you see the Daily Mail screaming moral panic about the number of graduates and when people are saying there are too many kids in higher education they’re not talking about their own kids, they’re talking about other people’s kids.

There are many people who are realising their potential for the first time who wouldn’t have otherwise had that opportunity.

I also think that aside from the social dimensions and the kind of altruistic ambition there is also a strong economic argument.

We should be seeing higher education driving us towards the upturn, not cutting back in the downturn.

I think large graduate recruiters will remember that during the last recession the instinctive reaction from lots of businesses was to cut graduate recruitment. All that did was when the upturn came around the organisation was filled with middle and senior managers. I think people need to take tough long-term decisions and not think about knee-jerk reactions.

What’s the general level of debt for students at the moment?

People under the top up regime would be looking at upwards of £20,000.

For the average undergraduate course you pay about £3,000 a year which is a significant amount of money.

What we do need to be clear about, for young people thinking of going to university or indeed people returning to higher education later in life, is the impact of student debt is and the graduate job prospects.

It should be set very clearly and transparently so that people can make decisions for themselves.

How do you feel about the ideological argument that education should be free?

I’ve always supported the principle of free education at university.

I think ultimately that any sort of system based on charging people for education eventually has an effect on learning.

In terms of the fee review we know that isn’t going to be won or lost on the terms of whether or not graduates pay, it’s how.

It would be very easy for NUS to retreat to the comfort of our traditional slogan, placards, all the rest of it but I think we would ultimately be selling students short by not engaging with what we knew was about to take place.

There is obviously a strong minority in the union that want to stay ‘traditional.’

What I will do is be really clear about the diversity of our membership.

I think with a membership as large as we have, which represents about seven million students, sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that we just have to put across one perspective or one view.

In terms of what the headline position should be of NUS, and in terms of our campaign slogan, and the way in which we lead and rally our membership, it should be absolutely trying to get an impact on the decisions and campaigning for a fairer funding system rather than coming out with the same old rhetoric.

So what you’re saying is that it’s sometimes the loudest voice is the one that gets heard?

We’ve been going through a massive reform and change progress, trying to ensure that NUS that is an organisation that is generally representative and relevant to our diverse membership.

But I think one of the most critical questions I’ve ever been asked as an NUS officer was a few years ago by a Labour MP on a select committee who said, “Who are you speaking for? Are you speaking for your members or are you speaking for your activists?”

Our activists are very pleased with the work that we do and these people are passionate, articulate political campaigners but they are not necessarily in the majority and we do have a responsibility to think of the length and breadth of the membership and not just to those who shout the loudest.

The silent majority as it were?

Yes, but it should also be the job of the silent majority to speak up a bit more.

What prepared you for leadership?

Years of arguing with people on our conference floor I think!

I’ve always been quite a political person and my background and experience has shaped my politics.

Much as I’ve said already that NUS doesn’t follow the people that shout the loudest I think I’ve got a lot of experience at shouting just as loud as some of my opponents in NUS.

Are you the Neil Kinnock of the NUS?

Neil Kinnock is one of my political heroes. I think certainly there is always a role for leadership to play in challenging some of the conceptions and challenging the status quo, and making sure people are prepared for the tough battles ahead and that they are fighting these instead of engaging in sort of introspective naval gazing.

But you know, I won’t draw the New Labour comparison.

Perhaps you’re the new Tony Blair then?

Well I’ve just seen Tony Blair on the news, shaking George Bush’s hand and receiving his medal so I won’t compare myself to Tony Blair just yet.

Does your family have a history of higher education?

No not at all. People have done since, but there’s no real history of higher education in my family. I grew up in Stepney, in the East End of London where not many people go to university.

More do now which is great but it’s something that I would encourage all my brothers and sisters to do. I’ve got five brothers and a sister, so there’s rather a large bunch of us.

Dozens of teenagers from all across London have lost their lives to knife crime in the past few years. As a Londoner what is your view on how we can tackle this problem?

You don’t want to make excuses for serious crime, but I don’t think there is a case of serious criminal activity in Britain that can’t be explained by people’s upbringings, and their families.

I mean you look at the history of lots of sex offenders in Britain and often these are people that have been the victims of child abuse.

I think there are some really damaging stories behind lots of the criminal activity in Britain.

My late grandfather on my mum’s side was a convicted armed robber.

He had all sorts of terrible things happen to him as a child and I just think in so many communities in Britain there is just no sense of hope, or there is no ambition built in from an early age.

There’s no comforting and supportive environment to show people that there are opportunities available and there are routes out of that sort of activity.

For me, one of the sad things about criminal justice policy in the last decade or so is that I think we see so much of the government being tough on crime, but not enough of it being tough on the causes.

Hopefully things like tackling child poverty and even though it’s controversial, the welfare reform agenda, all of those things, can start to get to the heart of some of these problems.

You were accused of Mugabe-like actions by your NUS opponents. How do you respond to those allegations?

We’ve got another reform conference next week to finish it all off (which was held on Tuesday).

Have you invited everyone to this one?

Yes, everyone was invited before as well. When you actually punched through some of the rhetoric, of some of the vested interest in the debate, we are hopefully approaching the end of what has been more than a decade of inertia and inaction to tackle some of the real deep ingrown structural problems in the NUS.

There’s all sorts of history of financial mismanagement, political failure, and disengagement.

Constitutions are only part of the problem, there’s a cultural change which should come next but you should never have a structure in place that impedes progress.

So there has been so much long drawn out consultation, that I think the overwhelming feeling amongst many in our membership is just that enough is enough, let’s just get this done, let’s move on.

There is a big problem out there and unless we really get to the heart of that problem, our legitimacy and our credibility comes under threat.

Give me an example of something concrete the NUS has achieved in the last year.

Our impact report shows that as a national union and movement we achieve so much day in, day out that does directly impact the life of the student.

I think that although people benefit a lot from the work that NUS does, they don’t necessarily see it or associate it with NUS.

It’s really important that in the future not only that students recognise that NUS does have big successes but that they feel part of those successes as well.

A great example would be a campaign we ran last year around HSBC, when they had put in place some really harsh charges for graduate accounts.

Using the power of online technology and Facebook, we were able to actually get HSBC to reverse the policy.

We won the award for Innovative Use of Online Media for that and it was a great campaign, because we managed to engage tens of thousands of graduates, recent members of NUS, into actually playing a part.

We’ve shown in that campaign alone the enormous potential that NUS has as an organisation and we just need to realise that more often.

As an organisation, you don’t represent all students – BNP students for example.

NUS is a membership organisation, I think it’s important that members get to set the rules and I think that one of the important principles at the heart of NUS is our commitment to equality and diversity and ensuring that everyone, irrespective of their background and experiences or beliefs have an opportunity to participate.

What you find is that some people will undoubtedly make the argument that, “Hold on, you’re including this person but not these others.” How can you justify that?

Because when you look at what Fascists such as the BNP stand for, at the heart of their ideology is the annihilation and total marginalisation of other groups of individuals in society.

What we can’t allow to happen is LGBT students coming to our conferences and feeling marginalised or harassed by people with homophobic views.

We’ve got plenty of people in our membership who, for religious reasons, or for other cultural reasons will be religiously or ideologically opposed to the whole concept of homosexuality and bisexuality, trans issues and the rest of it and fair enough, but it shouldn’t be for our conference floor.

Have you had any problems with extremists in the organisation?

I think in terms of NUS inner structure, people know not to bother. On campus, it’s been much more of an issue. Some of the most active and most vocal homophobic organisations on campuses haven’t been from Muslim based groups, but from Christian groups.

When I was at university, these people would come round and knock on my door during awareness week and tell me the perils of homosexuality and what the Bible says about it, which as a gay Christian I was more than happy to entertain. I think they got more of a flea in their ear than I did.

I think it is really intimidating for students, when a lot of people may not even be out to their friends and families, have someone come along and remind you of how evil people think you are.

And so we’ve taken a really pro-active stand and to their credit so have a big number of student unions in dealing with it.

On the plus side one of the other things we’ve been looking at inside the NUS LGBT campaign is the issue of faith and sexuality, and also making sure that when there’s a rising tide of Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism on campus in particular, we are standing up and being vocal in saying that we know what discrimination feels like and we won’t stand for that kind of religious discrimination either.

Were you out when you were running for NUS office?

I didn’t come out until I was in my second year at university. I was just about to run for JCR President at our college at Cambridge.

For me it was a really positive experience, everyone was fantastic about it. My friends were brilliant, my family have been fantastic and I haven’t really had any problems at all to be honest.

I realise how lucky I am to be in that position and there are tons of people who have a really horrific experience and there are lots of students who go through life feeling really miserable because they can never tell anyone.

Your predecessors as NUS President include Jack Straw and Trevor Phillips. It is seen as a springboard to great things. Do you ever feel the pressure of what’s expected of you next?

Yes, everyone keeps saying to me, “What are you doing next?”

I’ll probably be standing for re-election, that’s my immediate priority. If I win it will take me to 2010, but I will definitely have left the organisation by July 2010 because that’s my term limit. I love my job so much I think they might have to wedge me out the door.

I think that post-NUS I would definitely want to go and work for a campaign organisation but I’ll just be keen to look at what kind of opportunities present themselves and just grab the bull by the horns.