The first term for Malia Bouattia, the new President of the National Union of Students has been a challenging one indeed, with three universities: Lincoln, Newcastle and Hull voting for disaffiliation within weeks of her taking office. From Exeter to Aberystwyth, Loughborough to Reading, students have been campaigning to quit the NUS. Today, with eager anticipation, in an atmosphere not dissimilar to the EU debate, people across the country awaited the results of the Oxford University referendum on whether to remain with the NUS or leave. With Remain achieving just 57% of the vote, clearly there are a significant number who are not pleased with the NUS.
There are claims of bias in the referendum process, of the NUS having used their cardholder mailing list to spam students, despite prohibition of such action by OUSU’s returning officer – perhaps inspired by David Cameron’s notorious referendum mailshots.
Many of those who wish to leave the NUS are motivated by a feeling it no longer represents them. Protests arose earlier this year following the shock when Malia’s presidency campaign featured a demand to stop the incumbent Dunn’s plans to end the NUS’s relationship with CAGE, an organisation the Prime Minister has called an extremist group. Moreover, she has been accused multiple times of making anti-Semitic remarks.
These allegations of NUS anti-Semitism are not new but endemic; the system is plagued with hate. Way back in 2005, over a decade ago, Luciana Berger said, “Last week I resigned from my position as a National Executive Committee member, because of a continued apathy within the National Union of Students to Jewish student suffering.” She claimed to have been spat upon. Has anything changed?
Earlier this year, 47 presidents of Jewish student societies wrote an open letter to Bouattia, which expressed their concern about an article she co-authored in 2011, in which she referred to the University of Birmingham as “a Zionist outpost”. Moreover, the NUS NEC have passed a policy supporting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. The conflict in Israel is complex, and what the NUS ignores is that peace is hindered by extremists on both side. The bias shown by this demand to boycott Israel effectively tells all Jewish students that they are not welcome at university, simply on the basis of their ethnicity.
However, Oxford might perhaps be the last place to be shocked by these allegations, for it certainly has a serious anti-Semitism problem of its own; in fact, Oxford University Labour Club is currently under investigation for such – the co-chairman Alex Chalmers resigned because he was concerned about the anti-Semitic atmosphere. This is not unique to one Labour club, but the problem seems to permeate the far-left, with Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah bringing Labour into disrepute. Despite this the Yes campaign at Oxford has said to stay within the NUS to support reform, an argument rather like those who campaign to remain in the EU. However, the voice of the Jewish community clearly is not heard in the NUS, neither is the centre-right welcome according to Oxford Conservatives, and then recently a NUS motion called for LGBT societies to abolish gay men’s reps; men are not important. Across the UK for years have been told change is coming; we’re still waiting.
What disappoints me is not just the old anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish power and media control, but also the shameful response by Malia and the wider student movement. There was no apology, no promise to change, just simply denial of the problem. Whoever we are, negativity towards any ethnic group threatens the freedoms of us all and thus understandably Srishti Suresh, HumSoc President 2015 and WomCam Committee Member says, “I’m voting no because I can’t trust an institution that’s selective about the minorities it pays attention to.”
Looking at the campaign to stay in the NUS, I find uncomfortable how some activists appear to seek to set ethnic minorities against each other, seemingly implying Jewish societies are just opposed to Malia because she is Muslim. However, an investigation by the NUS itself last year that found current president Malia guilty of making anti-Semitic comments.
Moreover, it’s sickening to see a student climate in which these comments don’t stop someone being elected a president, an atmosphere where anti-Semitism, hatred of people for ethnicity or religion, is acceptable. The Education (No. 2) Act 1986 section 43 point 2 states academic institutions should not be “denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with— (a)the beliefs or views of that individual”. However, the NUS is an organisation which shows negativity towards those of Jewish belief, arguing against Holocaust memorials, and other positions that do not represent the majority of students.
However, what should we expect when only 700 out of 7 million students were allowed to vote! As Charles McGrath, Pembroke JCR Access Officer, highlights, “The NUS suffers from a major democratic deficit that those in charge seem unwilling to change. The repeated defeat of motions calling for One Member One Vote means that the NUS is structurally unable to keep on top of the concerns of students.” The NUS is not an organisation concentrating on realistic goals it can achieve in regards to student matters, such as higher quality course content. It goes way beyond relevant politics, such as student fees, and spends hours upon hour acting as if it were a radical far-left political party, passing motions on matters such as a call to shut down all prisons because supposedly they are racist.
Hannah Cronin, SusCam Member, Magdalen College, explains, “When the NUS wastes money on party politics, or avoids proper accountability, it’s not representing me. I’m voting NO because I don’t want it representing Oxford.” The reality is that students are a diverse body, and don’t share one opinion so as to be united behind a manifesto, and moreover, it is simply a waste of student funding to be sending letters to David Cameron, which he will never read. Thousands of pounds are being spent a year, with perhaps the only result being that Downing Street needs to purchase some extra filing cabinets. Alex White, Regent’s Park OUSU Rep, sums it up well,, “The NUS is too busy infighting and taking political stances instead of fighting for disadvantaged students. I think Oxford students do good work and can do better outside the NUS.”
The NUS has become a bizarre organisation of hate, where people one minute claim to be for equality, to be opposed to hate, and the next, they are apologist for Malia’s remarks. Enough is enough. Students have been belittled and pushed too far, seen far too much money wasted on a useless union that doesn’t represent their views. Three universities have escaped so far, and many more will. To the rest of the country, the message has to be that disaffiliation is the only way to purge our student movement of this ignorant prejudice.