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Liam Burns: in vocal opposition
The Journal speaks to NUS president, Liam Burns, ahead of the student demonstrations taking place in London
Wednesday, 21 November, 2012 | 17:27
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Credit: NUS Scotland

What does the NUS hope to achieve with today’s demonstration?

Tuition fees in England have trebled and, in Scotland, the way that we fund universities has been thrown into incredible instability.

Youth unemployment is at record levels. There are plenty of reasons why this generation has had opportunities taken away from it.

The purpose of this demonstration is twofold: We want to put out placemarkers for the next general election, and politicians understand what we want them to be talking about; what we want to happen.

Equally we want to remind people that we’re not going to forget the betrayal we saw at the last general election – MPs who signed up to the tuition fees pledge and then did U-turns have thrown the whole UK education system into chaos. They should be held accountable for that.

There’s been some criticism of the route of today's march, as some people feel it does not pass close enough to parliament - to the heart of the political establishment. How would you respond to that?

There has been a very small bit of criticism. The route was chosen because it goes past Portcullis House, where all the MPs are, and it goes past parliament.

It goes over the bridge at parliament, so that you get the best photo shots for the national media. It’s longer than our march in 2010, which people said was too short.

It’s not as long as the recent TUC march, so I think the route is a good route. But look, I will openly say that I picked a route that doesn’t seek out flashpoints. I think that would have been irresponsible.

What is your view on the feeder march being organised by the National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) this morning?

We’ve been clear in telling people that we can’t ensure safety, accessibility, stewarding etc.

A police public order notice has been served on it; it’s up to people if they want to go on that demonstration, but we’d severely recommend that they come straight to where the NUS march is starting at 11am, because that’s where thousands of groups are going to be gathered.

There’s been some chatter online about a series of offensive chants for today’s march being endorsed by the NUS. One of them runs: “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top. Put the Lib Dems in the middle and burn the fucking lot!” Is this the sort of image NUS wants to project?

No. Just to correct, NUS hasn’t endorsed those chants in any way, shape or form. One of our vice-presidents sent out those chants the day before yesterday to a mail base that is NUS-owned.

She has since apologised, said it wasn’t appropriate, didn’t paint the organisation in the right light, and isn’t the sort of language we’d expect from parts of our membership.

As far as I’m concerned, that should be the matter dealt with.

What are you hoping to see on the news this evening?

I’d hope that we see stats that have recently come out, showing the fact that 75 per cent of parents with under 18-year-olds think that the future of the next generation is bleak.

I think that what we should be doing is getting back to the fundamentals, and show people that what this government has done has been a betrayal to the nth degree.

But we must also posit a vision of a future we could have in this country. One in which we invest in education, not cut from it.

One in which we don’t enslave a generation in thousands of pounds of financial debt to the government. One in which we think it’s right to pay the poorest college kids enough to get to college.

These are all the things we think, but between now and the election, we must make sure that we focus on the political agenda.

How do the demonstrations today differ from 2010?

That was a different type of protest. That was reacting to a specific act; reacting to the government agenda, and it was right that we took that action.

This demonstration is about us setting the agenda, not reacting to it. It’s about saying "you might think that you’re doing things for us in employment and education, but they’re the wrong things."

All the evidence and all the stats show it. There’s been tens of thousands fewer applications to university.

People say they will now not go to college outside their catchment area. This is awful. Record levels of youth unemployment are still rising.

This demonstration is not an end; it’s just a start. It’s not meant to create change in and of itself.

This is about creating a springboard for continuing campaigns. A tactic that will set the agenda.

To return to broader issues, what’s your view on Scottish Labour’s recent U-turn on tuition fees?

It’s problematic. Robin, the president of NUS Scotland, has been quite clear that Labour, as well as the other parties, signed up to a pledge during the Scottish elections to say that they wouldn’t introduce fees. I’d hope politicians of all colours would stick to that.

Finally, do you have personal message for Michael Gove and David Cameron?

Stop doing what you’re doing. Your constant tinkering and ideological forms are putting a whole generation at risk of becoming the lost generation.

But, we want to work with you to create a fundamentally different approach to education, and over the next couple of years we’re definitely up for that challenge.

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