In April, Malia Bouattia, former Black Students officer and champion of left-wing and intersectional causes, was elected President of the NUS. She pushed out the incumbent president Megan Dunn, and put a nail in the coffin of the traditional kingmakers of NUS: the Labour Students. This formerly powerful block of Blairite students have for decades been used to getting their favoured candidates elected. Not this time. As well as being the first black female and Muslim president to lead the union, Bouattia was also the first outsider to beat the incumbent in several decades. It has been hailed by lefties as a turning point in the NUS towards a far more radical, campaigning student union – the kind of union that might have put up a decent fight to tuition fees in 2010. Others, however see it as a disaster.
When he was NUS President in 2009, Wes Streeting said "moving to the right on tuition fees makes sense". Now a Labour MP, he tweeted on Malia's election, "NUS is lost I'm afraid. It's had good leadership from Megan Dunn, but it no longer represents students well." Dozens of Jewish Societies at universities across the country signed an open letter expressing their "extreme concern" over supposedly anti-Semitic comments she had made in the past, which she has strongly denied. The press and commentariat had a general field day over the election, hailing it both as a joke and as something that should be taken exceptionally seriously (the same confusing mix we saw with the election of Jeremy Corbyn). Following this general maelstrom, dozens of student unions around the country have been calling votes on whether to leave the NUS completely.
Jack May, a student journalist in his final year ran the campaign at Cambridge to leave the NUS. Cambridge voted about a week ago to remain, but with a slim margin: 51 per cent casting votes to stay in and 47 per cent to leave. "Our campaign centred around anti-Semitism," May says. "Malia described Birmingham University as a 'zionist outpost' because of its large Jewish society; she said that the Prevent strategy was part of the agenda of the zionist lobby; she talked about 'zionist-led media'; she said that non-violent resistance against Israel wasn't enough. I don't think it's fair that students should be represented by someone who has aired these anti-Semitic views, so that was the focus for us."
Jack says the NUS has an institutional problem with anti-Semitism: "It's something that the NUS has failed to tackle for ages." He cites as evidence a recent article in the Guardian by Shelley Asquith, the NUS's vice president for Welfare. Responding to the disaffiliation drive, she gave a rallying cry in the face of government attacks on education. This, says Jack "is a completely different conversation really. The fact that she didn't respond at all to calls of anti-Semitism is just sort of indicative of the way this issue is brushed under the carpet."
Maybe the NUS just can't win. At the University of York, there is discontent precisely because of a failure to tackle wider student issues in favour of what are perceived as marginal issues. "There's a disconnect," claims Robin Brabham, the coordinator of the campaign to leave the NUS at York, "between what students really need, which is: support with living at university and an NUS that fights against skyrocketing living costs, and what the NUS is doing, which is: constantly debating no platforming, discussing who can and can't speak on campus. The priorities in regards to safe space appear to be quite backward."
"NUS safe space policies are very poorly thought out," Brabham goes on. "NUS commissioned legal advice that said NUS safe space policy and NUS no platform policy was very, very incorrect to be implemented, and could not be enforced, in fact."
Brabham, a Green Party member, believes the NUS is too close to the Labour Party and believes that NUS politicians are simply feathering their own nests. "Overall," he says, "we're seeing attention being focused by a small vocal minority on issues that fit their own political agendas – they don't have a very good perspective on what the student movement really needs." The union has run campaigns in the past few years, such as "#CutTheCosts", protesting the government's scrapping of maintenance grants. Victories against the Tory government aren't, however, forthcoming, and so the NUS continues to be seen as impotent, at York and elsewhere.
Students at Newcastle University seem to have similar concerns. They cut ties with the NUS at the beginning of May; 67 per cent of students voted to leave. Dominic Fearon, Newcastle University Students' Union President (who voted to stay in the NUS), "Those who voted to leave felt that the NUS doesn't prioritise issues that are important to students: the rising costs of university, the rising costs of accommodation… the increasing privatisation of the higher education sector. Then there are other issues that are less important, like no platforming and safe spaces. When students see what motions are top of the list being debated at NUS conference, they wish that things that affect them more directly were higher up the priorities."
So far, Hull and Lincoln universities have voted with Newcastle to leave the NUS; Warwick, Surrey, Exeter, Cambridge and Oxford have all narrowly voted to stay, while York is currently voting on the issue. Calls to "abolish the NUS" are not new – they've been coming from both the left and the right of student unions for years, but still the organisation has trundled on. Indeed, the NUS has over 500 universities and sixth form colleges as members – half a dozen leaving is not the end of the world by any means.
The NUS is facing a "difficult time", says Hannah Webb, a member of the NUS National Executive Committee. But for her, the election of Bouattia is the more significant point: "With Malia's election, this is the first time in years that the NUS has the opportunity and the will to properly take on the government over tuition fees, student debt, demanding a positive liberated education system, and to actively oppose the agenda of marketisation in education. It's unprecedented."
According to Richard Brooks, one of the NUS's vice presidents, the union has launched an institutional racism review into the allegations against their incoming president, Malia. The NUS takes such accusations "extremely seriously", and a second review is taking place into the democratic structures of the union, he said.
Chatting to students who were critical of the NUS, it seemed like the union is in a tricky position. Bouattia's allegedly anti-Semitic comments had been deemed extremely serious and hurtful, while no-platforming and safe spaces – policies designed to stop offence being given – are seen as a trivial distraction.
Things have moved on since the days of pro-tuition-fee Blairites: all parties seem to agree that they want to get on with fighting the government's attacks on education, but agreeing how to go about that together is out of reach, for now.
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