Last week’s election of Malia Bouattia as the next President of the National Union of Students (NUS) has split the commentariat, with some celebrating the fact that she is both the first Muslim and the first Black female President of NUS, and others pointing to her record of expressing political views that some have interpreted as anti-Semitism. Over the weekend, Bouattia has sought to offer explanations and context for her comments, but in the meantime, several students’ unions have expressed their intention to disaffiliate from NUS as a consequence of her presidency. What is the higher education sector to make of all this?
It is worth noting that NUS’s politics have been moving steadily leftwards over the past few years, with NUS Conference voting to adopt a policy of free education in 2014 and the left gaining a majority on NUS National Executive Council in 2015. NUS politics have moved with wider political trends, including the much-criticised resurgence of identity politics on campuses and the disaffection with mainstream politics that swept Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. These trends are not always reflected in students’ union-level politics, hence the disaffiliation threats.
Bouattia has promised action to diversify the curriculum, foster student-led activism and campaigning, defend free education and champion improved mental health services, an agenda that is not dissimilar to that of NUS Presidents over the last few years. In particular, NUS has been challenged by the question of how to harness the potential of student activism and social media to generate quickfire grassroots campaigns in response to emerging issues, while retaining a ponderous democratic structure that is intended to produce specific national priorities. Bouattia is apparently the latest in a line of NUS Presidents hoping to crack this nut.
Her opposition to the Prevent agenda may lead her to butt heads with the Government and HEFCE, and with students’ unions who either endorse Prevent or do not see it as a priority issue. But without a Counter-Terrorism Bill to focus attention, it is possible that Prevent will be less of a lightning rod for controversy than it has been this last year. Now that universities have their Prevent policies in place, presumably negotiated with their students’ unions, there are limited spoils available in this battle.
The concern is less Bouattia’s political positions than her potential tactics. NUS has fostered constructive relationships with governments and the higher education sector over the past ten years, to the extent that little happens in higher education policy without NUS’s input. There are voices on the left who consider the compromises involved in working with the Government to be unacceptable, and that time spent at the negotiating table is time wasted. If Bouattia decides to deprioritise negotiation with policymakers, then they could seek alternative student voices outside NUS or simply ignore students altogether. NUS’s prospects of seriously influencing the HE Bill or TEF would be compromised, and higher education policy would be the poorer for it.
The likelihood of immediate mass students’ union disaffiliation is low, mainly for pragmatic reasons. It requires a referendum of all students on campus to vote for disaffiliation or affiliation to NUS, and with exam season coming soon, students have bigger issues on their minds, notwithstanding the fact that a number of Jewish student groups have expressed deep concern over Bouattia’s election. Disaffiliations in reaction to particular issues that crop up during Bouattia’s presidency are much more likely. Moreover, NUS membership includes access to a range of useful services that have very little to do with national representation and campaigning, including collective purchasing, ethical clothing sales, the NUS Extra discount card, support for elections and crisis consultancy. Naysayers may argue that students’ unions can do without these services but their existence should give pause to those within students’ unions who might be arguing for disaffiliation.
Whether Bouattia’s words have been taken out of context or not, her engagement with student politics as NUS Black Students’ Officer has suggested that she is passionate about her politics and very good at political organisation. However, her record also shows that she is not particularly concerned with how her actions are perceived in the outside world or how the consequences of those actions might play out for the political influence of the organisation she leads. As she has said, as a Muslim woman, her words will be subject to increased scrutiny. She may believe that she should not have to adapt her approach or compromise her politics to get things done; no doubt all political leaders feel the same way at the start of their tenure. It is how they manage that tension that ultimately defines their legacy.