Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Shaima Dallali has been sacked as the president of the National Union of Students (NUS) following an an investigation into allegations of antisemitism.

It’s the first time in its 100 year history that a president has been dismissed in this way. Chloe Field, the vice president for higher education will step up as acting chair of the NUS Board.

Given the inevitable way in which her suspension since May has been politicised, some will raise eyebrows that it was the Jewish Chronicle that broke the story – leading NUS to rush-issue a statement, and Dallali herself to tweet:

There will also be questions about consistency. Back in 2017, the NUS president of the day Malia Bouattia faced an inquiry when she claimed that the government’s anti-terror programme Prevent was fuelled by “Zionist and neo-con lobbies”. At the time an internal report found that Bouattia did make comments that “could be reasonably capable of being interpreted as anti-Semitic” but recommended that she should face no disciplinary action.

In its statement NUS apologises for the “harm that has been caused” and says it will work closely with the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) over wider allegations of antisemitism, as well as “exploring actions” that it can take to build trust and confidence with Jewish students.

The Federation of Islamic Student Societies (FOSIS) issued a statement arguing that NUS is “no longer an organisation that take muslims or Islamophobia seriously”, is “not a safe space for muslims” and argues that the investigation into Dallali has been “deeply politicised” from the outset. It is calling on all Islamic societies on campus to organise and lead disaffiliation campaigns.

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said that it respects the decision to dismiss, adding “Antisemitism in the student movement goes beyond the actions of any one individual and this case is a symptom of a wider problem. Jewish students across the country will be asking how an individual deemed unfit for office by NUS was elected in the first place. We await the findings of the substantive inquiry into NUS’ treatment of Jewish students.”

We had been expecting that wider investigation to publish last Friday – but a webpage displaying an “indicative timeline” was edited on Friday afternoon, and we’re now told only that Rebecca Tuck KC will deliver her report to NUS “by the end of the year”. I doubt my NUS100 hoodie will be getting an outing at this rate.

The investigation is a key part of the “road back” to whatever engagement with government NUS was enjoying. As Commons Education Committee chair, Robert Halfon was outspoken in his critique of NUS and antisemitism, and now he’s a minister (if not the actual minister that has responsibility for universities at the time of publishing this piece) he gets the DfE quote:

We welcome the verdict to this initial investigation and look forward to seeing the outcome of the next stage, which will provide more detail on National Union of Students’ plans to address antisemitism within the organisation.”

Oil and water

The uneasy mix between procedures that are supposed to follow due process, natural justice and confidentiality principles on the one hand; and the public nature of the president position, the allegations and the discussions around them on the other; is front and centre here.

In the statement NUS only says that the decision may be subject to an appeal, and that “in strict accordance with rules around employees and confidentiality” it will not be sharing any further details on the investigation:

We can assure any interested parties that this process has been incredibly robust and that we can and must trust in the outcome.

But one major question that arises outside of the court of social media is the application of the procedure that NUS has used to terminate.

Full disclosure – I was partly responsible for the introduction of NUS’ Code of Conduct in the late 2000s, which was created to address the following paradox:

  • In a democratic organisation you would want a decision on someone not delivering on their political promises to be settled openly and democratically
  • In any organisation you would not want to put an allegation of sexual assault or theft to a public vote
  • As a result you would want an investigation into (mis)conduct to be handled by traditional disciplinary investigation and panel procedures, and concerns about performance against a manifesto to be handled through more traditional public democratic means

On reflection, it has proved repeatedly difficult for both NUS specifically and democratic organisations and institutions more generally to adopt that kind of “oil and water” approach – but as well as the “did they know and understand the standards and rules” problem that I looked at back in June, another puzzle emerges over the Dallali case.

NUS is a confederation of students’ unions – its members are SUs who in turn have members in the form of students and student leaders. So to have a viable conduct code, you first need to include all of those students and student leaders in your scope of who can be investigated and be subject to any sanctions:

  • The students of a constituent member (SU) aged 16 or over
  • The committee members and members of the National Executive Council
  • The sabbatical officers of constituent members
  • [Any] non-members acting in volunteer roles for NUS

You then need to work out the context(s) in which you might apply an NUS code – because what a students does on a night out who has no involvement in their SU let alone a link to NUS is probably not something NUS ought to concern itself with:

  • When acting or perceived to be acting on behalf of NUS in any capacity
  • When attending a formally organised NUS event (democratic or non-democratic)
  • In social media spaces both public and private linked to NUS events, campaigns or work
  • When interacting with any NUS staff member, Full Time Officer or volunteer (both appointed and elected)
  • Relating to any conduct of an elected or appointed volunteer of NUS that could be a potential breach of their volunteer agreement, our policies that apply to volunteers and/or the Staff Protocol

Universities often have similar problems in defining when it is that rules of conduct might apply to its students, for example.

Scoping out

The weird bit is that when NUS announced the investigation into Dallali, it said it would look into “a range of comments and actions that are alleged to have taken place over the last decade” – significantly before those NUS contexts kicked in. Moreover, the allegations we know about cover 2012 to 2020. It’s not for me to make any judgement here on whether those allegations amount to antisemitism – but again it’s hard to see how the allegations that are public relate to any of the above NUS contexts, unless the organisation has somehow decided that historic yet undeleted tweets are “current” once a student becomes a candidate in an election.

Of course we don’t know if the allegations that are public are the only thing(s) that has been considered, or if something(s) more directly related to the contexts above have been considered to have breached the policies. But if NUS has somehow found a way to terminate the membership (and thus elected office, and thus employment) of someone on the basis of things that Dallali did before she was even a candidate in an NUS election, that could end up having quite profound and far-reaching ramifications.

It also raises interesting questions about activities on campus. It appears that at least some of the allegations concern conduct in flow of pro-Palestinian youth and student activism. Any university SU with a PalSoc whose student members engage in similar activities or behaviours ought surely to expect to be subject to active condemnation and sanction from NUS in the future if it is to make good on that “building trust and confidence” thing. The problem may be the trust and confidence it breaks with other groups of students if it does so.

And there’s also the freedom of speech question. It could be that a panel has determined Dallali’s conduct to be technically unlawful in some way. But if it turns out that Dallali has only broken an NUS protocol of some sort, but hasn’t reached a legal bar for actionable harassment, you would have thought that the likes of Halfon would eventually move to call to protect her right to free speech on campus.

That’s not just a glib “gotcha” – it goes to the heart of the allegation that “woke” SUs impose rules that ban and discipline students for saying things that are controversial yet also lawful – or in the parlance of the online safety bill that Michalle Donelan is now responsible for, speech that is potentially “legal but harmful”.

Either SU and universities are a) not allowed to ban it, b) allowed to but don’t have to, or c) must. The government can’t have it three ways.