Students threaten break with NUS after election of new president

Richard Adams
22 April 2016
The Guardian

Students at a string of student unions including York and Oxford are agitating to reject membership of the National Union of Students, in the wake of the election of Malia Bouattia as the NUS’s national president amid allegations of antisemitism.

But while students at some institutions are lobbying to hold referendums on disaffiliating from the NUS, other students’ unions contacted said they had not received any student response to the events at the NUS conference, which concluded on Thursday.

A letter circulated around York University calling for a referendum described the NUS as “ostensibly a campaigning group that has the best interests of students at its heart, is a warped, self-serving organisation that works not to help students, but to divide and marginalise them”.

Ben Leatham, president of the York University students’ union, said: “A number of students have been in touch with the student union concerning the issue of NUS membership. We’re expecting that students will come to our AGM and discuss disaffiliation.”

Leatham said York students had a number of longstanding concerns about the NUS, including the issue of direct voting for executives by individual members rather than by delegates at the national conference.

“At York I think it’s about more than just the person of the president – it’s a variety of factors involved,” he said.

The issue of York’s membership was due for a referendum approval next year, but Leatham said it could be held earlier if enough students signed a petition calling for one, or followed other routes.

The president of the University of Lincoln students’ union, Hayley Jayne Wilkinson, said she and others were “very disillusioned” by events at the NUS conference, and that the union would go ahead with a referendum on affiliation.

“We do not feel that many of the decisions taken are in the interests of our members in Lincoln. This has been confirmed by a number of messages and conversations I have had with our students who are concerned about the direction in which NUS seem to be heading,” Wilkinson said.

At Cambridge, students have made a formal motion to the students’ union’s governing board calling for a university-wide referendum on NUS membership to take place later this year.

At the Oxford University students’ union, a request for a referendum submitted by students will be considered by the union executive next Wednesday, with the possibility of a campus vote held at the end of May.

Nick Hillman, a former special adviser to the universities minister and head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the NUS controversy was making it vulnerable to a greater threat from the government.

“The current crop of media stories could not have come at a worse time for the student movement, less than a month before the likely publication of the first major higher education legislation for a dozen years,” Hillman said.

Bouattia became the first black Muslim woman elected to the NUS presidency when she defeated the incumbent, Megan Dunn, during the national conference in Brighton earlier this week.

Bouattia’s campaign was controversial due to her past comments describing the University of Birmingham – with its large Jewish community – as being “something of a Zionist outpost”, and made separate claims about “Zionist-led media outlets”.

The row led Bouattia to make a statement saying she opposed racism and discrimination in all its forms. “Jews have faced horrendous persecution over thousands of years, and Jewish students on campuses and elsewhere continue to face antisemitism,” she said. “Our movement knows this, and will stand alongside them.”

But a leader published in the Jewish Chronicle on Friday said: “The election of Malia Bouattia as president of the NUS leaves no doubt as to where that organisation now stands. A woman who attacks Birmingham University as a ‘Zionist outpost’ because it has ‘the largest [Jewish society] in the country’ is barely fit to be a member of the NUS, let alone its leader.

“The real worry is that her election will legitimise the expressions of antisemitism that some already think are appropriate on campus – and that the situation for Jewish students will be made even worse.”

Rabbi Leah Jordan, a progressive Jewish university chaplain, said: “Bouattia must confront the fact that in the view of many Jewish students some of her language unfortunately reads as a dog-whistle to antisemites.

“As someone so impressively invested in inclusion, equality, and liberation, Bouattia must work to understand how age-old racist tropes about Jews are a danger to Jewish students, one of the many student minorities she now represents.”

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