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Last year’s National Union of Students (NUS) elections saw an ‘Inanimate Carbon Rod’ taking all the headlines and this year it’s another fringe candidate – Jack Duffin – who could steal some thunder and cause an upset.
Duffin, secretary of UKIP’s youth wing ‘Young Independence’ and prospective parliamentary candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, is one of four names in the running to become NUS president when votes are cast at the NUS conference in April.
While current president Toni Pearce is expected to comfortably retain her position, people are starting to question if UKIP can compete in student politics.
We grabbed an exclusive chat with Jack Duffin, UKIP’s NUS candidate.
SQ: Congratulations on becoming an NUS presidential candidate. Why are you running for office?
Jack Duffin: I am running for NUS President as I value the education of the young people in this country, it is one of the most important functions that the state is responsible for. The NUS should be a body that is championing this but from what I’ve seen, there’s too much focus on a whole range of other issues that has pushed education to the peripheries.
SQ: In your opinion, where has the NUS gone wrong?
JD: When we have seen a continued rise in the cost of living for students at university and education standards still well behind a large part of the developed world, the NUS has failed to draw focus to the problems at hand. We have seen student movements stopping people from going to Remembrance Sunday, banning the sale of newspapers and the playing of certain songs. I don’t want campuses across the UK turning into an authoritarian state where people are told what they can’t do, read or listen to.
SQ: You claim that in the NUS, “party politics and ideology should be left at the door”. As a UKIP PPC, isn’t there a danger that your political activities could bleed into such a high profile position within student politics?
JD: For many people the role of NUS President is seen as an apprenticeship for being a future Labour MP. I have worked on many projects that have involved me leaving party politics at the door so this is something I am happy to do. If elected I would be using the role of NUS President to put pressure on the government to improve the educational standards in this country, in all levels not just for university students.
The truth is half of the people going to university now end up doing jobs that required no degree and they could have been doing it without spending three years of their life amassing £30,000 worth of debt,”
SQ: You’ve written passionately about the lack of social mobility in Britain. If elected NUS president, how will you aim to change the way people view education?
JD: Education needs to be about empowering young people but at the same time schools need to stop making baseless promises. Telling people that 50% will go to university and when you finished you will get a wonderful graduate job is wrong. The truth is half of the people going to university now end up doing jobs that required no degree and they could have been doing it without spending three years of their life amassing £30,000 worth of debt at university.
SQ: Don’t you think attending university should be about more than attaining a job at the end of three years? Should people not be encouraged to better themselves, to explore ideas, to contribute to innovation…
JD: University and education as a whole is about so much more than getting a job but it needs to be taken into account. We can’t afford as a country to put everyone through university just to make them more rounded people while we burden them – and also the state – with debt. Universities and schools generally offer quite good extra curricular activities, I would love to see this continue and grow.
SQ: You’ve studied at Brunel University. How have you found the student experience in the UK? What have you enjoyed and what needs to change?
JD: I have enjoyed studying at Brunel but if I am truly honest I would have been better getting an apprenticeship after I had finished Sixth Form but this was never given to me as an option. A few top companies – even in the city – offer opportunities for people who have completed A-Levels to go into the workplace and if you work hard enough you can move up in their company. These roles are very competitive but would have suited my skills more than an academic course.
I have worked from the age of 14 so it was natural for me to pick up a job at University to cover my living costs but it was not ideal. This led me to mainly splitting my time between education and work, which detracts from the overall student experience.
I would prefer to see money given to students on a monthly basis rather than three times a year. I know many students who enjoyed the first month and then were left to struggle until more money came, borrowing where they could, which resulted in their debts spiralling out of control. Universities should adapt to this and have to change their accommodation charges to be monthly rather than in the three payments a year, that match the money given to students. This would also help students learn the skills required to budget their finances…a crucial life skill.
SQ: You “don’t expect to be elected” but want to get the “three old parties speaking common sense”. Won’t rhetoric like this lead people to perceive your candidacy as nothing more than a party political stunt?
JD: I have to be honest, the chances of me getting elected to lead a ‘Blairite’ movement is highly unlikely as it is dominated by Labour members who vote for party, not policy. I would love to be elected but I don’t expect to be elected. According to a recent YouGov poll, 80% of young people are in favour of grammar schools but only one of the four major parties in this country talks about them.
SQ: Young Independence claims to be the fastest growing youth wing in British politics, so how do students react to your affiliation with UKIP?
JD: The vast majority of students have no trouble with this, they want to know more about UKIP. They broadly agree with the party’s views on education. The problem arises when you confuse the views of the NUS with views of students. They are two very different things. So yes, I have had my fair share of ultra-radical students swearing at me across Twitter but that will not deter me.
The fact that it is three Labour supporting students and one UKIP supporting student running for the role shows how far the party has come and who is willing to stand up and challenge the record of education left by Tony Blair since 1997.
SQ: You chose not to seek re-election on Brunel University’s Student Assembly this year. Why?
JD: In my time on Brunel University’s Student Assembly I challenged many things that were done but were not in the interest of students there. Despite my views and others being listened to we never received straight answers from the sabbatical and voluntary officers. They preferred to sweep everything under the carpet and avoid telling students as much as possible about what was going on behind closed doors.
SQ: So how do you think students can communicate effectively with universities and the unions? Does the current system work?
JD: With engagement being so low in university elections something must be wrong so this needs to be looked at and addressed. I would like to see NUS centrally go onto campuses and into schools to ask students what they want, the issues that affect them and have a bigger say in where the money goes. The vast majority of students feel NUS is something that does not represent their views or beliefs. The only time recently I have seen NUS standing up for students was over the increase in tuition fees and due to the behaviour of some people, the argument was lost and only the violence of rioters was shown.
We have recently seen a small level of protests where students have resorted to violence and threatening behaviour, NUS needs to work to stop these and make sure protests are carried out in a safe manner.”
SQ: Do you support campaigns against marketisation in education, such as those that took place at Uni of Sussex, Birmingham Uni and ULU this past year?
JD: There have been many negative consequences of the marketisation of universities. Universities now function as businesses, looking at how many people they can get into rooms, how much they can reduce contact time by and how much they can reduce staff pay. This was a direct result of the 50% target. By having a realistic number of people going to university, we would have still had the established universities focusing on education rather than making a profit from students.
One advantage of marketisation is that universities have started focusing on employability. Brunel introduced schemes since I was there to increase your chances of getting a job. I feel this is a key thing people should look at when choosing their university because if you can’t get a job afterwards you have wasted time and money.
SQ: Do you agree with the direct action taken by students in the aforementioned campaigns? Have you ever been involved in student protests?
JD: I agree that students should be allowed to hold their demonstrations and campaigns on whatever issues they feel need addressing, that is part of the freedom we enjoy in this country. We have recently seen a small level of protests where students have resorted to violence and threatening behaviour, NUS needs to work to stop these and make sure protests are carried out in a safe manor.
I haven’t taken part in any student protests, I have been involved in student campaigns as this is a method I prefer, as oppose to confrontational behaviour. My work on raising awareness of child soldiers for example was done by educating students and challenging politicians for change. This is my preferred method but I respect that every issue needs to be handled differently and people have different views.
SQ: You ran for an Environmental position within Brunel University a couple of years ago. Are we likely to see a call for ‘flower boxes’ around university campuses as part for your national NUS campaign?
JD: Unfortunately not. I wanted to improve student safety and we have a pond at he front of the university that an increasing number of students are falling in when drunk. I wanted to see the students protected from potential injury by simply putting flower boxes around the pond.
SQ: Where do you have more chance of electoral success: at the NUS in April or in the General Election next May?
JD: It very much depends how my local election campaign goes in Hillingdon on the 22nd May. I am confident that my hard work in the ward will result in success. If this happens it will greatly increase my General Election result next May.
In terms of the NUS I will have achieved my goal if they simply start taking the issues affecting children’s education across the country seriously. The NUS has incredible potential to be the vehicle for change, so hopefully we can make the NUS about education and see every child in the UK get a quality education that isn’t affected by their parents’ ability to pay.
Read Jack Duffin’s manifesto for NUS President here.