An oxford NUS delegate has publicly criticised the National Union of Students for “preventing people from expressing their views” due to what he sees as an intolerance of right-wing opinions within the organisation.
Jack Matthews, who is also President of the Oxford University Conservative Association described his first experiences at the union in a blog post. He stated, “Within minutes of the meeting starting, one member began to speak of how NUS should build a bonfire, with the Lib Dems in the middle and the Tories on the top… I had somehow stumbled into the heart of an organisation where you could joke about the murder of someone along party lines, and the rest of the room wouldn’t bat an eyelid.” At a separate NUS event, Matthews claimed that “the vitriol was so great… [I] was effectively hounded out”.
He related OUSU’s similar antipathy when he first revealed he was a Tory, describing how “There was a clearly audible gasp from the members of OUSU Council. My first experience of student unions and the take home message was ‘you’re not that welcome’.”
Speaking to Cherwell, Matthews stressed, “This isn’t just about being a Conservative; it’s about being different. We have a situation where the environment of our “debates” is preventing people from expressing their views… while the rules that are in place at the NUS do not technically bar anyone from getting involved, there is a culture that puts off outsiders.”
Others have criticised the NUS on similar grounds. Reading University Student Union president Mark Kelleher told Cherwell of “Sitting next to a NUS full-time officer, an elected representative of all students in the UK, who started to sing the now infamous ‘build a bonfire’ chant.
“NUS are very big on… the principle that no course participant should be made to feel uncomfortable… However, from what I have witnessed, this only applies if you agree with their strong left-wing views.”
An NUS spokesperson commented, “NUS does not align itself to any particular political party. Our membership is made up of thousands of students with a broad spectrum of political views. This sometimes results in debates at conferences but all views are heard and received. We also operate an equal opportunities policy within NUS and throughout all of our events which extends to different political views.”
OUSU President Tom Rutland commented, “I have no time for people who sing songs about putting anybody on a bonfire, but my experience of working with NUS has been very positive. OUSU Council is comprised primarily of OUSU representatives and JCR/MCR Presidents, elected by individual common rooms – if there is a ‘political mainstream’ in OUSU, then it’s one that is both representative of and chosen by common rooms.”
Ed Nickell, former President of Exeter JCR and recently appointed NUS delegate for OUSU, was sceptical about the strength of ill-feeling towards Jack Matthews. He said, “In the face of discrimination on grounds of class, race, gender and sexuality – I’m not sure being a Tory is really such a tough one. This is a storm in a teacup. Maybe people have been rude to Jack, and that wasn’t very nice of them, but that doesn’t actually amount to censorship.”
The NUS is the UK’s largest confederation of student unions, including 95 per cent of all higher and further education unions.
The annual National NUS conference is where policies are voted on by elected delegates. Factions including Labour Students, Conservative Future and the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts usually contest elections.