Aaron Porter, the beleaguered President of the National Union of Students (NUS), has said that he will not be seeking re-election to the post after his term ends this summer. Porter has faced harsh criticism during his time as the leader of the NUS, particularly from left-wing student protest groups, who accuse him of being too weak in his opposition to higher tuition fees.
Porter was widely expected to seek re-election and is only the second NUS President in the history of the organisation to not run again. His decision is effectively a resignation in all but name.
He explained his reasons for standing down in a Guardian editorial: “Unfortunately, attempts to discredit the [anti-fees] movement by those who stand to gain by splitting us have threatened to do just that, and the politics of personal attacks threaten to turn the campaign inward at a time when our resilience must be at its highest.
“The new politics and the new landscape, which will see support for students across the board slashed, mean it is more vital than ever that we are united and reinvigorated. That is why I have decided there needs to be a new president to take us forward.”
Porter has been accused of being slow to react to the wave of marches and occupations that occurred on campuses across the country late last year and rapidly lost favour with much of the student protest movement. After the first NUS-organised national demonstration in London, where 50,000 students marched on Whitehall, the protest movement’s organisation splintered and largely abandoned the NUS.
The news that he will not be running again has been welcomed by his critics. Student protest organisers have written in national media that Porter had lost touch with students and become ineffective as a leader.
Megan Fortune, a member of Warwick Against the Cuts, said Porter was “a disgrace to students across the country. He has no position other than to not re-run after his disastrous moves in the fees debate. He didn’t follow what students wanted – he’s a careerist and he decided to disassociate himself from the student-led movement [against fees].”
Others, however, were more sympathetic. Baris Yerli, a second-year Sociology student said: “I think he was a victim of both people on the right and by people in his own number on the left and far left. I agree that he had his inadequacies, but what was going to be the replacement?”
“He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place; it’s not his fault that fees tripled,” said one fourth-year student.
Current Warwick SU sabbatical officers, who have worked with Porter and the NUS on the campaign against fees and higher education cuts, agreed. “I think he did really well overall; I think the personal attacks are unfounded and simply ridiculous,” said Leo Bøe, the SU’s Welfare Officer. “The fact that the Liberal Democrats had such a massive divide on the vote can be attributed to the work the NUS did. [Porter] also put the NUS very much back into the centre stage of politics in general. It’s become a much more relevant organisation.”
Bøe also argued that Porter could not have done much more in the face of the Government’s plans. “I think it’s difficult. He could have been more explicit on where he stood with students’ unions, but on the other hand there’s the fact that the expectation was very, very high on his position. A lot of people see him as a failure because the vote went through, but people ignore a lot of the successes that came out of his work.
“The fact that he’s not re-running is evidence that he’s not a career politician, which is something he’s been criticised of,” Bøe added.
Education Officer Sean Ruston echoed Bøe’s sentiments: “He had to deal with a coalition hell-bent on a radical marketisation of higher education. He was attacked viciously by the right for being too left-wing and by the left for being too right-wing. It’s a credit to him that he managed to walk that difficult tightrope.”
Three candidates have put themselves forward to be Porter’s successor. Two are current NUS officers – Liam Burns, head of NUS Scotland, and Shane Chowen, NUS vice-president. The third, Mark Bergfeld, is a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party and has previously been critical of the NUS’ response to the Government’s plans. He told the _Guardian_ last December: “Because the NUS has been slow in taking action, it doesn’t stand with students; we need to mobilise to build a movement that stands with student protesters and fights and wins.”