The National Union of Students is failing those whom it claims to represent, and is an organisation riven with bigotry and hypocrisy. It needs wholesale reform to be worth supporting, says Antony Tucker.
The National Union of Students, fresh from its annual conference, has slipped even further into the mire of sectionalism and bigotry which has so discredited both it and the good name of students for so many years. The NUS claims to “fight discrimination, isolation and injustice…” and to “make sure students can thrive”, yet it is failing an increasingly discontented and apathetic student body. Radical reform of the organisation is needed, so it can better reflect the views and priorities of students in education today.
One key symbol of how low the NUS has sunk is the election of Malia Bouattia as President by the delegates assembled. On paper, she was a progressive choice: we need both more women and more Muslims in positions of influence in Britain. But the mask soon slips – she is a racist, anti-Semitic bigot who genuinely believes in a Zionist conspiracy that controls the media.
In her own words upon election, “When we talk about liberation it’s not just about women, Black, LGBT+ or disabled students – it’s about us all.” Perhaps she could try to live up to this ideal in office, having failed up to now; but to think this individual now represents Britain’s students should turn the stomach of all but the most committed racist. In a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, at a conference where efforts to condemn Holocaust Memorial Day as non- inclusive were applauded, Bouattia’s election should be seen for what it is – the far left failing once again to deal with its vile prejudices, whilst seeking to moralise at the rest of us.
The rot of hypocrisy that has morally bankrupted the NUS runs deep, and cannot be separated from its failure to live up to its progressive goals. This is the organisation that obstructed Hope Not Hate’s chief executive on the grounds of Islamophobia. His offence: daring to speak out against the grooming of vulnerable children by gangs, a disgusting crime that is condemned by all decent people regardless of their faith or ethnicity. Rather than seeking to commend Nick Lowles’ group for its leading role in defeating racism at the ballot box, the previous cadre of officers sought to win some self-publicity via trumped up and ridiculous charges, followed by a rapid row-back after a wave of well-earned derision. These are the people who the public see as representative of students, an assessment that insults students and our beliefs.
The claims of the NUS to be progressive are further discredited by its opposition to the most basic forms of free speech. This year’s conference resolved to try and restrict students’ access to social networks – notably Facebook and Yik Yak – for the benefit of its electoral process. Not for the benefit of students, but for the NUS establishment; although Motion 303 claimed to only pursue “troll” accounts, who will decide who gets banned? The NUS of course, handing yet more power to an established order of self-important self-publicists. The answer to the side-lining of so many people due to their race, gender, sexuality or religion cannot be to further constrict debate; rather, we need a positive alternative that avoids the chilling effects of over-regulation on our most basic freedoms and provides genuine liberation.
All in all, the NUS cannot be said to be an organisation that truly represents students today; its efforts tar too many of us with a poor reputation. Endemic racism, attacks on free speech and a confrontational attitude to any competing group make the young people of Britain appear like a gaggle of trainee bigots, not the open-minded and diverse individuals we truly are. What’s most infuriating is that so much potential is going to waste; not only is a lot of excellent work by the NUS – including a comprehensive advisory service and welfare department – being drowned out amongst a web of bigotry and futile gesture-protests, but that the student movement in Britain could be so much more.
With over two million people in some form of higher or further education in Britain, the students of this country could be a major power broker in the political landscape, on a par with our trade unions and major pressure groups. By working with, not against other similar groups, we can gain traction in the debates that truly concern students today, from living costs to housing to trans rights, equal pay and the glass ceiling that still exists in so many professions. The NUS’s advocacy of too many issues, tainted as the organisation is, has proved ineffective. Now, more than ever, we need a revived student movement: if the NUS is to lead once more it need fundamental reform.
Where should this start? The first target has to be an abolition of the delegate system and a move towards direct election, with particular self-defined caucuses responsible for the selection of liberation officers. The current delegate system creates apathy amongst the many whilst ensuring that those elected are a tiny subset of a subset, rather than truly enjoying broad based democratic support. A more representative leadership would result in more widely supported campaigns, and an organisation which the average student can both relate to and trust once more.
Other helpful moves would be to directly get involved with parliamentary elections on the ground. Too much energy is wasted on fruitless demonstrations that make their organisers feel pious and wise but achieve sod all. Getting students registered and endorsing local candidates could swing dozens of seats and give all those in higher and further education the voice in Parliament we so desperately need; whilst these tasks are arduous and attract little publicity, they are the best way to actually achieve positive change.
For all its faults, there is cause for optimism amongst Britain’s students. We can change the world for the better: the first step is to renovate the NUS. Lead by a bigot and responsible for self-serving, restrictive and unrepresentative policy, the NUS today tarnishes the reputation of all students. It can change, and it will if we make it do so – as things stand however, if it wasn’t for the discount card nobody would bother.