Due to recent events concerning the National Union of Students...
Summary: Due to recent events concerning the National Union of Students, we want to update you on our current involvement with the NUS and offer some additional context and share our thoughts on the current situation. Below is an article that provides more information and some initial ways you can have your say. We will be continuing to discuss this issue in the coming months with more opportunities for you to shape our response.
We want to draw together some information and perspectives regarding the National Union of Students (NUS), since you may have seen some recent media attention challenging whether NUS is inclusive, genuinely representative of the student body, and sufficiently influential. Your Officers and NUS National Conference Delegates also attended the NUS’ National and Liberation Conferences held in Liverpool in March and have had some time to reflect on the conference itself, as well as the actions and values of the National Union of Students and its role in amplifying student voice.
The most important thing we want to say is that we (your Students’ Guild) are a membership organisation led by you, our members, which means you decide which organisations (such as the NUS) we are affiliated with and those that we are not affiliated with.
“With the current situation, it is reasonable to ask questions about our affiliation with the NUS. This is not a decision that I, as your President, can take: it is for you. Whether we stay in the NUS or decide to hold a referendum on our membership and potentially withdraw, I, along with all other Officers, will continue to engage with the organisations and networks that we are members of. Ultimately, we will continue to represent the desires and best interests of all of our students.
It’s important to note that being a member of NUS does not preclude us from holding them to account. Taking strong stances against behaviours that do not align with our values is important to us, and our community. Whatever we do going forwards, we will continue to work with our entire community to ensure everyone is represented, all voices are amplified, and your rights are protected.” Lily Margaroli, Guild President
We’ve put together this article to provide more information and context around the situation so that you are informed. If you have any questions, please contact Lily directly on email@example.com.
What is NUS?
The NUS is a confederation of over 400 UK Students’ Unions, and so NUS has over 7 million student members in total. NUS celebrated its 100th Anniversary this year, operating under different government agendas over the years, sometimes in a fairly hostile political environment.
NUS exists to represent students at the top levels of decision making (i.e. Government) as well as to empower grassroots student-led activism and offer training and support to member Students’ Unions and their officers. NUS holds national conferences to provide a space for networking and campaigning, which elected officers and students attend.
NUS has had some big wins for students over the years, including campaigning for the introduction of 16-25 railcards, TOTUM discount cards and no council tax fees for full-time students.
What’s the problem?
Recently, strong, legitimate concerns have been raised about the conduct of the NUS and its Officers. A performer invited to an event celebrating the ‘100th birthday’ of the NUS event caused many Jewish students and groups to feel extremely uncomfortable. The handling of the situation by the NUS compounded the issue. It took considerable pressure from students before the performer finally pulled out of the event. More research should have been done into the performers before being invited.
These concerns were heightened when historic tweets which (one of which referenced the massacre of Jewish people) from the incoming President of NUS surfaced. The president-elect has since apologised for these posts and reconfirmed her commitment to working with the Jewish community. However, the Jewish community felt the apology was not sufficient as it did not address the concerns raised by some of the very specific comments made in the tweets.
Our Jewish Society released a statement expressing their deep concern and we are working with the society to ensure we continue to represent our Jewish community on this issue. We support the calls from other Students’ Unions’ and former NUS Presidents that ask the NUS to issue a more robust apology, carry out a thorough independent investigation into antisemitism within the NUS (which was launched on 13 April), and commit to rebuilding relationships with the Jewish community of students including groups like Union of Jewish Students (UJS). Some of these asks have been responded to in a more recent statement from the NUS.
In response to these events, the Government’s Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan, took to Twitter in April calling for the Government to reduce its engagement and cooperation with NUS and to boycott the organisation in any consultation. She also considered referring NUS to the Charity Commission. On Friday 13 May, the Department for Education announced the Government had suspended engagement with NUS – which included other governmental bodies – until ‘decisive and effective action’ has been taken. If you’d like to read up more about what this could mean, Wonkhe have written an article about it here.
*This is just a summary of more recent issues, there are many nuances, bits of communications, and perspectives which we haven't been able to share due to the desire to be brief. If you are interested then we encourage you to look at the links we have embedded and do further research online.
What do we think about this?
We support the Government taking a strong stance against antisemitism and striving for collaboration with organisations that have values of inclusivity and equality. We take a strong stance against any discrimination within our community and have been in close communication with our Jewish Society throughout this particular instance to ensure they are aware of what we are doing, and what support is available to them. However, given this Government’s reputation of not prioritising students' needs, we are dubious as to possible ulterior motives behind the removal of the ‘seat’ at the table for NUS.
Calls to boycott NUS, and any reduction in Government collaboration with NUS, result in disempowering a united and unionised voice of students, which means students have less bargaining power over the Government. Currently there is not an alternative to the NUS, this is the only collective body that represents students in the UK to the Government. Government ministers that have called to boycott the NUS have not provided realistic measures as to how they would continue to embed the student voice in their decision and policymaking that impacts students. Lily, your Guild President, tweeted Michelle Donelan to ask what the alternative is and invited Michelle to Exeter to meet with our students, we are yet to receive a reply.
The NUS must be better and do better, that is without question. But, without a functioning NUS which is engaged with the Government, what does the future of national student voice look like?
We currently pay NUS an affiliation fee each year, for 2021-22 we are paying £37,500.
Our affiliation gives us access to training, resources, networks, and advice and support including on topics around Freedom of Speech and representing students. You can find more information about NUS’ services and opportunities here.
Can we disaffiliate from the NUS? The decision ultimately would be made via a referendum. Our last referendum on this topic was in May 2019 with 5.5% of the student population voting, with the outcome being in favour of continuing to be affiliated to NUS with 52.75% of the vote.
If you would like to express your opinions on our affiliation with NUS or enquire more about the referendum process, you can either get in contact with Lily directly on firstname.lastname@example.org or our Voice team on email@example.com.
We would also like to invite your comments and views on this subject to help us to gauge the student opinion. Please provide your feedback here.