It’s back to Blackpool as NUS attempts to put a troubled period in its past

As the National Union of Students conference draws near, Livia Scott reviews the people, politics and positions up for debate

Livia Scott is Partnerships Coordinator at Wonkhe

The National Union of Students (NUS) has had a rough couple of years, all considered.

Its centenary conference in 2022 was shrouded in claims of antisemitism – controversial rapper Lowkey had been booked, making Jewish students feel “excluded and unwelcomed”, only for Jewish students to be told to use a “safe space” designated for students who are sensitive to loud noise for the duration of Lowkey’s performance.

But it was the election of Shaima Dallali – the President of City, University of London SU – that proved to be most controversial. Allegations of antisemitism surrounding both her contemporary and prior behaviour swirled around her candidacy before, during and after the event – triggering the government to formally announce a “disengagement” from the body in May of that year.

A KC-led investigation into both Dallali specifically and antisemitism in NUS generally ensued – the former of which appeared to lead to Dallali’s dismissal. In theory, a tribunal case will be heard in court any day now – and while NUS is not covered by the Free Speech Act, it may well offer up insights and parallels into the myriad issues and tensions surrounding student conduct and free speech on campus.

The ongoing legal case notwithstanding, after 18 months or so coping without a President, NUS will be hoping to bounce back somewhat at its national get together as it returns to Blackpool this year in an election year. Former Liverpool Guild student leader (and Vice President Higher Education) Chloe Field has been acting up, and had initially stood to take the top job properly, only to withdraw during the process – allowing Birmingham Guild’s Amira Campbell to sweep to victory.

Back to Blackpool

For reasons too tedious to explain and for veterans who may be confused, NUS insists on holding its elections before the Conference these days – plenty of organisations do that, but the electorate remains the (barely) elected delegates to the event. Candidates received an enhanced “candidate preparation” process – a month-long period between the closing of nominations and the announcement of candidates that included ensuring everyone received sufficient training and support, partly to deliver commitments in the NUS Antisemitism Action Plan developed following the investigation.

Campbell is a highly impressive character, capable of switching between “radical” community activism and “lobbying” student leadership without any sense that the two tactics are in opposition – and has handled with considerable skill and care a series of quite difficult issues on campus, many of which relate to heightened activism and tension off the back of the war in the Middle East.

Her manifesto reminds readers of successes in access and participation funding, lobbying for increased working flexibility for international students, promoting student rights at work, and advocating for better campus accessibility and equality. She’s also keen to promote community organising principles – listening, power mapping, and collective negotiation to effect change.

There’s plenty in there for Gen Z – work on climate change is prominent, advocating for universities to achieve net zero goals and sever ties with fossil fuel and arms companies, and pushing for policies that support a sustainable and inclusive educational environment. International students’ rights are also prominent, with a commitment to combat hostile environment policies and calls for more comprehensive support for healthcare students and the rights of LGBTQ+ and diverse student communities.

And inevitably, Campbell stresses the importance of rebuilding trust and solidarity among students from diverse backgrounds, including addressing antisemitism and islamophobia within the student movement.

Refresh the NUS

There are four full-time student leaders at NUS UK these days – of particular interest to us is the Vice President Higher Education, which was won by another student leader from an SU that calls itself a guild – Alex Stanley from Exeter. Stanley is a skilled communicator – able to switch between winding up students and presenting calmly to senior types – and is one of those student leaders who has also built up an impressive understanding of the sector he’ll be seeking to influence.

In office in the South West, Stanley has involved himself in lobbying for compensation over industrial action, has helped out on challenging the university’s connections with fossil fuel companies like Shell, and has been campaigning hard for a housing guarantor scheme. His manifesto addresses the cost-of-living crisis by advocating for grants, calls for full-time students to be able to access means-tested benefits, and supporting international students by removing work restrictions and ensuring equal access to hardship funds. He’s also keen to rebuild national representation work on postgraduate students.

NUS also elects a Vice President for Liberation and Equality – and another Russell Group SU officer, this time Saranya Thambirajah from Bristol SU, has won that race. At Bristol Thambirajah was involved in leading a rent strike, established a substantial reparative justice and anti-racism program, and called for inclusive healthcare and mental health provisions. Thambirajah promises to push for anti-racist education, support neurodivergent students, ensure campuses are physically accessible, and advocate for gender-affirming healthcare – as well as strengthening support systems for international students and improvement to NUS’ relationship with students of faith.

Going through the motions

The event itself is much less procedural than it used to be – but will still discuss policy issues, which are first subjected to informal, facilitated discussions to identify areas of consensus. “Solidarity with the People of Palestine and preserving the student movement” is one of the few motions to have got through a fairly narrow funnel, and ironically may not be obviously suited to that consensus process. It will inevitably be seen as controversial, especially since a separate motion on combatting antisemitism was not prioritised.

Tackling the debate over the IHRA definition of antisemitism head-on, it argues that criticising the Israeli government, or the Israeli state for violating Palestinian rights should not be equated with antisemitism – and aims to “clarify and unite” understandings of antisemitism to avoid “operationalising of Jewish identity”, which it says is being used to “shield the Israeli state from criticism”.

Funding, Food and Shelter” is perhaps more straightforward – using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a theoretical anchor, it covers food banks and an unregulated private rental market, and interestingly calls for more devolution to regional governments to help tailor support to the needs of students across different areas.

Meanwhile “Campaign for International Student Equality” highlights stringent visa monitoring, limited working hours, and high financial demands such as the Immigration Health Surcharge and tuition fees, which it argues collectively impair the accessibility and affordability of UK higher education for international students.

Around the rest of the UK, conferences and elections for the president roles in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have also concluded. Scotland chose Sai Shraddha Suresh Viswanathan – she becomes the first international student to hold the position at a time when the government seems keen to further clamp down on international students’ rights. The Wales president will be Deio Owen from Cardiff University SU, while NUS-USI (the joint arrangement with the Union of Students in Ireland for Northern Ireland) has picked Ben Friel – from the National Society of Apprentices, a UK-wide sub-body that now-resigned Robert Halfon pushed for at the turn of the last decade.

Further afield, what we might call “Starmerite” candidates won the majority of seats on the Labour Students and Young Labour committees in internal elections last week. That represents a significant defeat for the left in two of the few areas of the party it held majorities, suggesting further evidence of the ebbing away of Corbyn’s “youthquake” as the youth factions of the party move closer to the centre of the political spectrum. Only two candidates on the left-wing Socialist Future slate were elected, despite currently dominating both committees.

A new government

Those elected to the NUS UK roles this term are the leaders who will be representing students to influence a new, and probably Labour, government over the first two years of their tenure – and will be hoping for a fresh start to reset relations with government as a result.

A remarkable number of prospective parliamentary candidates appear to have been student leaders in their day – although few seem keen to admit it. That the Labour frontbench will likely include people like former NUS president Wes Streeting will be no guarantee of improved engagement – even setting aside the antisemitism claims, student politics itself seems to sound like a culture wars issue that the Labour leadership is keen to avoid.

That’s a pity. It’s a viciously difficult thing to represent the interests of the diversity of issues and students that the UK has these days – but their voice is consistently missing in the policy documents and proposals that we review on a regular basis. A much bigger NUS of the past was able to put on multiple faces and spin several tactical plates to pull it off – the challenge for its incoming leaders will be to do something similar on much tighter budgets.

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