Opinion: The NUS has betrayed the confidence of Students’ Unions again
We can’t allow complacency to make us complicit in its failure.
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In May 2022, Rebecca Tuck, then Queen’s Counsel, was appointed to head an inquiry into endemic antisemitism within the National Union of Students. Her report, published in January 2023, is a scathing indictment of a culture of antisemitic assumptions and behaviour rooted in a preoccupation with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Now, just six years on from the last referendum on disaffiliation, the Oxford University Student Union has called for another referendum on the issue of our affiliation. The question at vote is ‘Oxford SU is currently affiliated to the National Union of Students (United Kingdom). Should it continue to be affiliated: yes or no?’
This is a turning point, will we remain part of the organisation, fighting to end bigotry from within, or will we disavow its failures in full and turn away to focus on building a new student movement based on accountability, cooperation, and full participation? I believe we cannot continue to endorse the National Union of Students by our membership. It is not effective, it is not accountable, and it is structurally flawed, attributing too much power and responsibility to elected officers who can only infrequently be held to account. Disaffiliation will make the Oxford SU stronger, while sending a strong message to the NUS and beyond, bigotry has got to go.
The NUS and how it Functions
The NUS is, however, not a single organisation, and its different branches provide different services to member Student Unions. The organisation was divided in 2020 into NUS UK, NUS Charity, and NUS Services. The last of these is the income-generating arm of the organisation, while NUS Charity provides operational support to Student Unions and NUS UK provides political support. Most students will never interact with NUS Services, and our affiliation with NUS Charity is not at vote in the referendum, so we’ll focus on NUS UK.
NUS UK is geared almost exclusively towards political lobbying, it works at all levels of government to advocate for changes to policy that support students, and its website provides a sample of the various campaigns it has begun. Prior to the 2022 investigation, representatives of NUS UK even sat on various further and higher education groups in the Department of Education, a privilege since rescinded when the government cut ties with the NUS.
These organisations are run by dedicated staff teams, directed by the political leadership elected annually at the NUS UK Conference, and are accountable through that political leadership.
The report and the wider case for NUS disaffiliation
The case for disaffiliation is potentially expansive, but I think there are three overriding points. NUS UK is not effective, not accountable, and structurally defective.
Fundamentally, NUS UK is a lobbying organisation, it exists to ask whoever is operating the system to kindly do so in the favour of its members. It does not engage in direct political action and does not support any particular political party. This limits its influence, by not seeking to change the decision-maker by democratic means, the NUS must accept that it will often be advocating to an uninterested listener. The NUS also struggles to engage its wide membership in its grassroots campaigns, of the 2.86 million students in the United Kingdom, just 18,736 have signed the NUS’ most popular petition on the cost of living crisis, just 0.66%. While the NUS at one point had an effective avenue to lobby on behalf of its members in the Department of Education groups it sent representatives to, that right has now been lost due to its consistent failure to curb internal antisemitism.
Regarding this failure, it is important to remember that this is not the first antisemitism scandal in the NUS’ history, three of the past five presidents have faced some allegation of antisemitism, Malia Bouattia, Larissa Kennedy,and Shaima Dallali. In her report, Rebecca Tuck also noted that concerns about antisemitism have featured in seven reports issued by various bodies, both convened by the NUS, and independent, such as the House of Commons and the Runnymede trust. While these reports have found varying degrees of antisemitism within the organisation, the most striking aspect of the most recent report is the apparent cause of antisemitism in the NUS. To quote directly,
‘There are, however, numerous instances where Jewish students have suffered antisemitism because of assumptions that they are “Zionists”, and assumptions about what that means. This has led to views within NUS that complaints of antisemitism are made in bad faith to try and avert pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli political advocacy’.
This goes to the heart of the issue of antisemitism in the NUS, not only is the issue recurring, but attempts to hold those responsible to account are met with opposition not on the merit of the allegation, but on the presumption that the allegation is meritless. The issues with accountability are also contextualised by the fact that of the past five presidents, four of them have belonged to the ‘Liberation Left’ faction, including all three subject to allegations of antisemitism. This is not to say that the issue is endemic to the faction, but rather that a faction so dominant in the internal politics of the organisation is inherently difficult to hold to account when they produce candidates that must be held accountable, especially given it is the same conference which elects the President who are called to hold them to account politically.
Nor are issues of bigotry restricted to Antisemitism. In Trinity Term 2022, delegates of the Oxford SU for that year’s Liberation Conference, a conference centred on activism to support minority and marginalised students, reported that they experienced a spectrum of discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Complaints to responsible permanent staff about this discrimination were not adequately dealt with. Furthermore, the insufficiency of the response to antisemitism from permanent staff is featured in the 2023 report. This goes to show the degree to which bigotry is an issue in the NUS and how inadequate the institutional safeguards are, which are meant to protect victims.
The structure of the NUS is itself a flaw that is not often considered. NUS UK officers are elected at the UK, Scotland, Wales, and NUS-USI (Northern Ireland) conferences every year, much like Oxford SU sabbatical officers. Unlike sabbatical officers, however, who are held to account at meetings of the Student Council four times a term, these officers are only liable to be removed at an annual, extraordinary, or emergency conference. Annual conferences only take place yearly as the name implies, while the calling of an extraordinary conference requires forty or more affiliated SUs to sign up. This is before the removal of an officer, which requires a two-thirds majority of members, can even be considered. Finally, emergency conferences are a venue where the National Scrutiny Council, a council of twenty students elected at the annual conference, may bring a motion of no confidence (which they may not bring at extraordinary conferences). The NUS’ governing documents unfortunately do not provide for the procedure to call such an emergency conference. However, even if it were provided for, the problem of the sole scrutiny body in the NUS being elected at the same conference as the officials it scrutinises is obvious. Even if a single bloc were not so dominant as Liberation Left is, the composition of the council likely mirroring the composition of the national offices is not conducive to those offices being effectively held to account.
Problems to consider
This is not to say that the case for disaffiliation is beyond doubt, in particular there are several reasons you might prefer to maintain our affiliation, many of which were raised by the leader of the Oxford SU reaffiliation campaign during the open meeting on Friday.
When asked how much the Oxford SU spends annually on the NUS, the reaffiliation campaign leader answered the same as his counterpart for disaffiliation, about £20,000. He went on to raise, however, the support the SU has received from the NUS in the past 3 years. In 2020-21 Oxford SU received £152,000 in pandemic support from the NUS, he said, and another £27,000 in Cost of Living Crisis support in 2021-22. He also raised that as a body, the Oxford SU pays among the lowest membership dues to the NUS. Though this is somewhat misleading as dues are calculated based on proportion of block grant, and that proportion is the same between all member SUs.
The leader of the reaffiliation campaign also raised a letter from the NUS VP for Higher Education, Chloe Field, to the Union of Jewish Students in which she expressed her unreserved apologies for the NUS’ failure to curb antisemitism within the student movement, and elaborated that her personal mission was to bring about an irreversible structural change in the NUS that would bring a permanent end to antisemitism in the organisation. Based on this, and meetings the leader attended with representatives of the NUS and UJS at which he was privy to their plans for structural changes in the NUS, the leader suggested that there is a real reason to have confidence that the NUS will now address the issue of antisemitism.
In his closing remarks, the leader of the reaffiliation campaign finally warned against the Oxford SU running away from the problem of antisemitism in the NUS, our influence would be far better placed, he suggested, being used to bring about the reform necessary to end antisemitism in the NUS once and for all. He noted that past Oxford SU delegates have always occupied a moderate and sensible position within the NUS.
Conclusions and Exhortation to Vote
As I said at the beginning of this article, I do not believe that the Oxford SU should remain affiliated to the NUS. In spite of the speeches of the leader of the reaffiliation campaign, and incisive questions asked of the leader of the disaffiliation campaign, I believe that we cannot continue as members of the NUS without being complicit in the antisemitism and bigotry which permeates the organisation. Even if the benefits are potentially great, the fact remains, membership of NUS UK is not only expensive, it is ineffective.
The NUS has proven, time and again, to be resistant to reforming that would put an end to antisemitism within the organisation. It may be that root-and-branch reform would bring an end to the issue, but I think we see in the report of Rebecca Tuck KC that antisemitism, and bigotry in general, is not a structural issue but an issue of the student movement being dominated by a faction pre-occupied with the Israel-Palestine conflict as a moral litmus test. One that, in pursuit of the legitimate goal of Palestinian liberation and peace in the region, has lost sight of the principle of all intersectional movements, one oppressed group is not truly liberated until the same oppression has been lifted from those others which suffer under it.
The solution to Palestinian oppression is not found in the victimisation of Jewish students in Britain. I find no comfort in Rebecca Tuck’s recommendations that discussions around the Israel-Palestine conflict are facilitated to take place in a more respectful way. This is in my view a tacit admission that to deprioritise the issue, or to abandon it entirely, would be nearly impossible, especially as she acknowledges her lesser goal would still be a difficult task. In that case I cannot bring myself to agree with the proposition that we cannot disaffiliate from the NUS, if this debate, with all the bigoted views it has caused to surface, cannot be side-lined, then the NUS is truly beyond redemption.
I do not expect that everyone will agree with me, for many people this issue is far more important than it is to me. However this issue forms just one part of the myriad reasons I see for disaffiliation. I hope I have made them clear.
Whether you agree with me or not, there is one outcome I will admit is worse than this student body voting in favour of reaffiliation, this would be the vote not reaching the threshold for it to be binding. The SU’s Trustee Board has set required turnout at 4%, around 1,300 students voting. To that end I ask everyone reading to please vote online from 08:00 on the 27th of February until the 1st of March at 18:00, no matter which way you will vote.
The views of the author are his own and are not the views of the Oxford Student, of the Oxford University Student Union, or of Merton College JCR.