The campaigns were launched; the Tab articles were written; the Facebook posts were shared and liked; the votes were cast. For most of us on the side calling for disaffiliation from the National Union of Students (NUS), there was great sadness in losing, and self-reflection, asking ourselves whether putting in all of this work during exam term was really worth it.
For those of us who fought and are still fighting for disaffiliation, however, hope is not lost. With Durham and York still to decide whether they want to join Newcastle, Lincoln, Hull and Loughborough by disaffiliating, there is a chance to send a real message to the NUS that students are not happy. But, let’s not forget the reason all our campaigns were set up in the first place: we wanted the NUS to change. Now is our chance to push for that change, affiliated or not.
The NUS needs to fundamentally review and reform its culture and policies. The organisation is meant to unite students from institutions across the country. Currently, it’s achieving the opposite. So far, the majority of universities may have voted to stay affiliated, but most of the elections have been closely fought. Those who’ve campaigned in favour of the NUS – even its executive members – have done so knowing that the organisation has to change.
Indeed, it’s evident that the NUS must make itself more democratic and accountable. For at least the past three years, delegates have voted against proposals to give every student in Britain the opportunity to vote for a national president. With someone as divisive as Malia Bouattia at the helm, the seven million students ostensibly represented by the NUS should be able to decide whether she should continue.
With this in mind, the NUS needs to become more relevant to every student in the country. Standing up for minorities is a laudable ambition, but it’s not the only thing the NUS should pursue. The NUS needs to support all students, and stand up against all forms of oppression.
Epitomising the organisation’s current irrelevance, NUS vice-president Richard Brooks explained in a very brief article for the Huffington Post all the things the NUS has done for students. Exempting students from council tax was one of the achievements listed. This was accomplished in 1992. While this may have been important at the time, it shouldn't be the case that one of the core examples of the NUS’s ‘relevance’ was achieved over two decades ago.
So, in modern, 2016 Britain, what does the NUS do, you may ask? Well, judging by NUS conferences, the organisation treasures meaningless measures and motions that have nothing to do with the everyday lives of students. Representatives are obsessed with trying to pass as many motions as possible, with Richard Brooks boasting that this year the NUS passed more motions than ever before. I would rather they did a few things to genuinely help students, than lots of things that have no effect on campuses.
The current quandary of the NUS was revealed when the government raised tuition fees. Then president, Aaron Porter, was criticised by his own union for having engaged in reasonable discussion with the government. It is reported, but not confirmed, that NUS members shouted “Tory Jew scum” at him as he came to speak at a rally against the rise in tuition fees. Instead, the NUS advocated protest at Conservative HQ, which turned violent. The organisation has called for free higher education for all, but we have not seen any progress in a long time.
In reality, the NUS is failing to help students with even the most basic aspects of university life. Indeed, what is the NUS doing to ensure that students can afford to live wherever they decide to study, especially London? What are they doing to support students with their academic studies? The answer is, very little. They should be encouraging debate, encouraging academic rigour, and encourage fairness for all.
This is surely a by-product of the lunacy spirit within the organisation. The NUS has lost all credibility, and, as a result, policy makers will no longer take it seriously. If I said I don’t take pleasure in embarrassing the NUS by listing its outrageous and downright absurd conference motions, I’d be lying. So here’s a list:
The NUS passed a motion this year “officially” condemning ISIS – as if students' minds weren't already made up on the murderous cult.
In 2015, the NUS banned clapping at the NUS women's conference, as it was seen as “able-ist”.
The NUS also banned the social media app YikYak, on grounds that: “social media during elections does more good than harm.”
But the proverbial biscuit was taken at this year's black students’ conference, where a motion to “abolish all prisons” was passed. I kid you not.
These motions aren’t just fun and games, however. Some of them can and have been harmful. In 2016, the NUS told students’ unions to abolish the position of an officer for gay men, as they were no longer “oppressed” enough. In case NUS executives hadn’t noticed, gay men still face bullying from their peers and online, the word “gay” is still used as an insult, and gay men are publicly thrown off buildings in Iraq and hanged in Iran. To glibly dismiss the concerns of gay men is to ignore some quite fundamental social realities.
So, I ask again, what does the NUS do? The answer is still, very little. Fine, they give you 20% off your Pizza Express dough balls, which you probably wouldn’t buy unless they were discounted, which means you probably spend more anyway. But this doesn't make the organisation meaningful. It needs to stop selectively recognising injustice, and actually start doing things to address it.
The main thing that must be changed within the NUS, however, is its culture of anti-Semitism, which is a toxic stain on the organisation. The NUS has done a great deal of work to address racism, yet anti-Semitism still pervades its hierarchy. While the NUS may be able to claim a good record where racism is concerned, all those gains are negated while it allows anti-Semitism to flourish within its ranks.
At my university, Cambridge, some of our delegates were sickened by this year’s NUS conference. They claimed the NUS was unchangeable, and were shocked at how anti-Semitism was being ignored by those running the event. This year, the NUS voted to remove the only Jewish position of representation in the organisation; eliminating the secured seat for a Jewish student on the anti-racism, anti-fascism campaign. Stalls for Israel are regularly vandalised at conference, and Luciana Berger – now a Labour MP – resigned in 2005 from the executive council due to anti-Semitism.
The NUS needs to address anti-Semitism, and fast. How would it do so? By telling the current president, Malia Bouattia, to resign her post. It’s simply impossible to address accusations of anti-Semitism whilst the incumbent leader refuses to apologise for having made odious remarks about Jewish students. To add insult to injury, the NUS conducted a review on Malia's anti-Semitism, and found her to have indeed broken their rules, but said she didn't have to apologise as she “hadn't intended to be anti-Semitic”. This system is “rotten to the core”, as one Cambridge delegate put it to me.
The NUS needs to change, and it needs to do so fast. If the NUS doesn't begin to fundamentally reform within a year, it will have broken the trust of the students who voted to stay because they trusted the NUS to change.
To prevent the demise of the organisation, representatives should show a sincere willingness to stamp out anti-Semitism. Not only that, they should seek to build a coalition of supporters by representing the interests of ordinary students. Bizarre, controversial motions should be quashed, and the union should repair its dwindling credibility.
The NUS has immense potential. I really think there's a place for a union that can protect students who don't otherwise have a voice. I hope next year I will be able to propose that the NUS supports every student in Britain. At the moment, I cannot, which simply isn’t good enough.