At this year’s NUS Conference, Malia Bouattia was elected as NUS President. She was elected to lead a strong, united student movement; one that stands up to austerity and the Tory government’s attacks on Higher and Further Education; one that is – at its core – anti-racist, pro-welfare, and pro-democracy. NUS’s first black Muslim woman President won her election in the first round of voting by over 50 votes, unseating a sitting President (a rare occurrence in NUS), in the largest democratic union of students in the world, representing some seven million students.
But her election has sparked an array of attacks against her in the media based on racist lies: she was cast as an ISIS sympathiser for calling out Islamophobia, and a radical Islamist for vocally opposing the racist PREVENT agenda; a supporter of terrorism and violence when the opposite is true, as laid out in her speech, and she was subjected to death and rape threats on social media.
Calls to disaffiliate from NUS have largely been mobilised on the back of these attacks, alongside attempts to belittle and deride the work that NUS does. Articles in leading national newspapers trivialised motions passed at conference: the much reported motion ‘banning YikYak’ was actually a mandate to work with social media outlets to stop online harassment during elections. Simultaneously, these articles failed to mention so much of the good work that was highlighted during NUS Conference – a deliberate attempt to undermine the student movement, and stoke calls for disaffiliation.
Some students have argued that we should disaffiliate from NUS because of accusations of anti-Semitism levelled at Malia, many of which were derived from comments taken out of context. Articles reporting these accusations have taken recourse to Islamophobic stereotypes, suggesting they go hand in hand with her being Muslim. I agree with the Union of Jewish Students, who have called upon Jewish students to remain in NUS – this is vital to fight anti-Semitism in all its forms. The upcoming NUS institutional racism review – that will address all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia – is most likely to yield constructive results for how we can move forward as a student movement and stamp out all forms of racism.
Given, then, that calls to disaffiliate have been mobilised on smears of the NUS and its new leadership, and that anti-Semitism within our student movement can best be addressed by remaining within it, it seems clear that people driving the ‘NO to NUS’ campaign simply disagree with NUS policy and election results.
But, as Tom Rutland (OUSU President 2013-4) said in an email to all Oxford students during the 2014 referendum, “we won’t agree with every decision made at NUS – but that’s democracy”. There have been many students who have felt unrepresented by NUS Presidents in the past – myself included -, but we haven’t called for disaffiliation, for two reasons.
First, NUS is much more than its leadership.
Second, to demand an exit from an institution because you don’t like the outcome of a vote is profoundly undemocratic. So what is different about this election? Many students calling for disaffiliation have said that Malia’s election indicates how out of touch the NUS leadership is with “ordinary” or “normal” students: but who gets to be counted as an ordinary student? Are black students unordinary? Are Muslim students abnormal? Are we to dismiss those who care about liberation as “out of step” with the “real world”? As Shelly Asquith – NUS’s Vice-President for Welfare – wrote last year: “This bizarre trope is used to dismiss and undermine issues which those employing it politically oppose”. Saying that NUS no longer represents “ordinary students” is a smokescreen for saying “I disagree with the way they voted”. It is not a reason to disaffiliate.
There are so many reasons why we should stay in NUS that will be set out by the #YEStoNUS campaign in the coming few weeks. The NUS Women’s Campaign has set up a government task force to overturn the 1994 Zellick Report, which has resulted in a failure of universities to support survivors of sexual violence. This year, NUS voted for the first fully paid full-time Trans Officer in the country. The NUS campaign against PREVENT had an instrumental role in forcing a review of the legislation. NUS Conference voted this year to form a national student mental health task force, particularly looking at suicide prevention. NUS provides solidarity networks for international students who face deportation, and provided evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, which persuaded them to launch an inquiry into the illegal deportation of 50,000 students. Over 2,000 Oxford students have NUS Extra Cards, giving us discounts we can’t get with our BodCards. If we disaffiliate, we lose these, costing individual students money.
Moreover, NUS is the only national organisation conducting nationwide research on student issues – from mental health, to sexual violence, student poverty or the impact of maintenance grant cuts on working-class students. Without NUS, this vital research would not be provided. NUS provides training for our Sabs, multiple trainings such as Women in Leadership, Black Leaders, Disabled Activists, and 26 democratic conferences which include training and workshops for delegates on a number of issues. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Saying #YEStoNUS is more important now than ever. Next month, the government will publish its White Paper on Higher Education, alongside the HE Bill later this year, which will introduce radical changes to how universities work, including introducing higher fees for elite institutions like Oxford. This has dire consequences for access, which will be further undermined if Oxford votes to leave the national campaign against the bill.
The democratic election of the first black Muslim woman NUS President – the most progressive President to date – is something we should celebrate. More than this, we should be celebrating our National Union of Students, which time and time again has supported us – from campaigning against PREVENT, to providing legal guidance to support rights we have won for Suspended Students, to selling condoms to OUSU at a next-to-nothing price. If Oxford disaffiliates from NUS, it will send a clear message that it is us who are out of touch with students. Come the referendum, say #YEStoNUS.