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The government is “disengaging” from NUS. Does it matter?

As ministers enact a threat to stop talking to the National Union of Students, Jim Dickinson tries to understand the justifications and implications
This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s probably cheap to point out that the government has just – without irony – “no platformed” the National Union of Students.

But that’s the upshot of an announcement on Friday announcing that the Department for Education (DfE) and its arm’s length bodies will “temporarily disengage” from NUS following a spate of allegations of antisemitism.

I’ll confess that the announcement did remind me of when a couple “announce” a break up – and you’re amazed they were still together. How would anyone actually tell if meetings between DfE and NUS stop – and have they actually been happening anyway?

On the surface, this is a tale about antisemitism, attempts to make facts fit the frame of what some imagine is a remix of the Corbyn story, and problems with the government’s confused approach to free speech. But as well as the Conservatives’ long-term antipathy to NUS, there’s something deeper going on with my old employer that deserves both some explanation and strategic consideration.

A Lowkey affair

As well as being much shorter and much smaller, in comparison to the raucous, huge, factional and highly procedural events of the past, these days NUS’ annual conference more closely resembles its old fringe programme. It’s much less about political debate, much more about political education and organising – and certainly no voting, which is naturally all done online and asynchronously these days.

Hence in early March, when the agenda appeared for this year’s event in Liverpool, the four hours of content on the first day had space for a poetry recital, workshops on “building communities for change” and a plenary discussion including Coventry MP Zarah Sultana and author Amelia Horgan.

The problem was that the speaker list for the conference also featured “Lowkey”, a British rapper and activist from London and “patron” of the Stop the War Coalition. A couple of weeks prior, he’d appeared on PressTV (the Iranian state-owned news network) with former Derby North MP Chris Williamson and sacked Bristol academic David Miller, espousing controversial views on Ukraine, Israel, Zionism and Nazisim.

The story goes that representatives from the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) then met with officials at NUS to discuss the Lowkey booking, during which it was suggested that students who objected to his appearance on the grounds of allegations of antisemitism and their safety could opt-out by moving into the “safe space” designated for neurodivergent students who are sensitive to loud noise – with inevitable consequences.

It could be you

The other upshot of the event being shorter and much smaller is that where previously delegates would have been given the choice between a whole range of candidates – including, usually, one or more leading (centre left) “moderates” and one or more leading (further left) “radicals” for each of the main six full-time officer elections, these days most student political groups have stopped playing or lost interest – which means that aside from some “hat in the ring” hopefuls, the president and vice president elections were foregone conclusions – with Shaima Dallali, the president at City University SU the winner of the National President election.

A seasoned student activist, at City Dallali had established a “Friends of Palestine Society”, and when campaigning for President argued that attempts to impose the IHRA definition of antisemitism on universities and SUs represented an attempt to suppress student activities in support of the Palestinian cause. Then both when her candidacy was announced and when she emerged as the winner, some social media archaeology revealed some posts (with varying degrees of controversy) some of which she then apologised for, later committing to ongoing engagement:

My hands are outstretched to all students that work in our movement, including Jewish students, and I have already expressed my willingness to arrange a meeting once I take office. I stand ready to listen to the concerns of all students on how we can make our movement inclusive and open to all. Fighting to challenge injustices is central to our vision as students, and with the support of grassroots organisations we have the opportunity to challenge institutional frameworks that seek to limit the accessibility and experience of all students.”

This isn’t to suggest, by the way, that Dallali wouldn’t have won if she’d been opposed in the way that she might have been in the past. Her campaign focussed on all the important issues faced by students today and her speech was powerful. But it is to suggest that when a mass political system loses a previous breadth of participation, it will struggle to suggest that that system is accurately representing the breadth of opinion amongst its members or citizens. And it then finds controversial leaders, difficult decisions or even the poor handling of controversies much harder to defend.

Empty chairs

The NUS handling of the story wasn’t its finest hour. The union first tried to suggest, for example, that Lowkey hadn’t ever been booked for the conference (despite an old version of the agenda still being found online) – suggesting that he’d actually been booked for the liberation conference later in the week, and therefore inadvertently suggesting that antisemitism wouldn’t have been a concern at he event dedicated to tacking discrimination in the process.

On the Monday before its conference, NUS pulled out of appearing at the House of Commons Education Committee, giving its chair and long-time NUS opponent Robert Halfon the opportunity to insinuate that it was avoiding questioning over antisemitism, and NUS the opportunity to tweet that MPs and education leaders “are accountable to us not the other way round” and that “old school bullying culture is never acceptable including at govt committees”.

Halfon later referred NUS to the Charity Commission – despite it not actually being a charity (although it does have a charitable subsidiary). Then an open letter from almost every former living NUS President emerged a few days later calling for an investigation, a counter-letter emerged signed by several student Palestinian societies rejecting the “smear campaign and harassment” of Dallali, and then eventually in mid-April NUS announced an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Lowkey booking and handling, and the allegations surrounding Dallali’s social media.

In the background, further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan had been threatening a “package of measures” since the affair blew up – and now has announced “temporary disengagement”, including removal from all DfE groups (although we’ve no idea what these groups are that it sits on) to be replaced with “alternative student representation”, such as from the Office for Students’ student panel or from individual SUs. DfE has also asked arm’s length bodies, including OfS, to take similar action – although there’s vanishingly few of these that have an NUS rep as an ex-officio member on any of its bodies.

The announcement also craftily “confirms” that NUS will not receive any government funding – it wasn’t getting any anyway, but it does allow the press to write up the story as NUS having its “funding suspended”. And Donelan has also written to Civica, the electoral body that had oversight of NUS’ elections this year, asking for more information on how the electoral process was carried out. There’s little chance of a smoking gun in that exchange.

Free speech within the law?

On the antisemitism allegations, it’s probably wise to avoid pre-empting the results of the independent investigation – although it is important to note that that’s arguably exactly what the government has done in condemning and disengaging. One of the things it rails against is the kind of “cancel culture” where allegations become fact and due process is abandoned – so it’s on shaky ground when it looks like it’s abandoning its own arguments for process fairness under political pressure. If nothing else, why is the government condemning NUS over Dallali before she’s even started when City University and its students have had her as a governor all year? Will funding to City University be cut now too?

There’s also the ongoing problem of the government’s position on free speech. It is OK to argue that free speech, as long as it’s within the law, should be sacrosanct and protected – but ever since Donelan came a cropper on Radio 4’s PM over the free speech bill and holocaust denial, that’s not been the government’s position. It has actually repeatedly said that universities and SUs should further restrict free speech in pursuit of wider Equality Act 2010 duties on harassment, which has ever since raised the “where do you draw the line” question, particularly given that the IHRA definition of antisemitism continues to be politically contested.

The problem is that on controversial issues, it keeps moving where it imagines that “line” should be depending on who is speaking out, on which issue, and whether it agrees with them politically.

But even if we accept that the government’s position is contradictory and confused, we do need to think about how NUS has ended up here – and what that means for the ongoing discussion of the “student interest” in the future.

Seven million strong

Throughout its history, one of the things that NUS has just about managed to argue is that it broadly represents contemporary student opinion. That might have rarely been explicitly right-wing in character, but its democracy always managed to offer opportunities for alternative opinions to emerge in motions and candidacies (not so long ago there were always Conservative and Lib Dem executive members), and its committees and mainstream work offered opportunities for “cross political” work on education quality, SU development or even ethical purchasing to give both those with strong political opinions and those opportunities to work together in the student interest.

It has also historically managed to straddle differences in view about its purpose and tactics. Across its membership, leadership and activities, there was always a mix of demos and dinners – one minute producing research reports to discuss in the room, the next protesting outside of the room. Decision makers have always preferred the former – but the ability to switch has also meant that the smartest NUS leaders have learned the dark arts of knowing when to act in and act out without being typecast by the tactic.

To some extent, this breadth has given a space for some of the steam associated with difficult political debates among students to be let off. In the 00s, I was responsible for staff support for NUS’ liberation conferences when its women’s campaign slowly, painfully yet democratically switched support from gender critical to trans inclusive feminism. I’ve watched delegates wrestle for hours with working out whether lobbying for better student loan terms represents a sensible strategy or capitalisation over the principle of loans. And I was also there for the three hour debate at NUS Conference 2006 when students debated what was then the “EUMC working definition” of antisemitism and where the line was between protecting Jewish students and the suppression of pro-Palestinian activism.

You’ve made your bed

But here in 2022, there are problems. In wider society, universities, SUs and NUS, we have increasingly converted political debates into codified behavioural standards – such that when someone says things that others dislike, it can be argued they’ve “broken the rules” and should be judged by (often unrepresentative) professionals rather than the idea they have said something to be debated. I’ve been over this phenomenon on the site before – every time we lament the development, we can also see progress given the way in which oppression and harassment used to thrive in the name of “debate”. I don’t know, for example, where many alleged breaches of the now IHRA definition of antisemitism fall between legitimate debate and oppression and harassment – but I do know that codifying it into a behavioural standard hasn’t somehow made the debate go away.

The other issue is that for NUS, its financial problems in the late 2010’s caused a radical contraction in its scope and capacity. Where there were twenty full-time officers, there are now just six around the UK. Where it once edged 100, NUS UK employs just ten full time staff if we discount its skeleton staffing operation in the nations (which is more likely to be the cause of Scotland’s decision to go it alone than ideological nationalism). Pressure from SUs caused its affiliation fees to fall, but a huge historical pension deficit still exists that needs to be paid down. And that has forced some choices.

Even when NUS was huge, internal strategy discussions were dominated by the idea that it did “everything for everyone all of the time” and that some choices needed to be taken. Once it was on the verge of collapse amidst problems with its web platform and NUS card sales operation, choices were made. The less “political” work of union development and purchasing was hived off into a separate charity with little direct student involvement. The main NUS UK operation was then left with reduced affiliation fees and the entirety of the pension deficit to pay off.

Hence the space across its democratic and representative structures to involve both those with a different view to its leadership, and those without strong views, had to be cut. What was once an ability to deliver both “mass mobilisation” and “lobbying and influencing” has now been rationalised down to a focus on the former. And the constant debate about whether to try to make incremental improvements or abandon and overthrow the education system in its entirety is no longer one that can be had within NUS itself – it has, long term, strategically decided on the latter.

It’s not for me to determine whether that was the right call – but we do need to note that a call has been made. A self-fulfilling cycle of chicken and egg justification has emerged – students are different these days, goes the narrative, they eschew representative democracy and working through traditional power structures, and the education system is so broken that only a new kind of organising can overturn the status quo.

I could flip a coin on nature and nurture – but once that becomes the only work you do and the only people you attract, it becomes impossible to respond to others who might disagree – because they become enemies rather than participants.

What’s missing?

That all has implications. For three weeks in late 2021, spiking and student safety was the #1 issue on the desks of almost every SU in the country, yet when the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee invited contributions, NUS apparently declined the offer. And while the debate about the Augar response has invited plenty of comment on the principles of fees and university funding, NUS has been decidedly quiet on the policy and practicalities of student maintenance.

It’s perfectly OK, in other words, to decide that spending time lobbying backbench Conservative MPs or minor government departments on policy detail is not a priority, especially if times are tough. But if purposeful, pointed and assertive national student representation isn’t happening on the detail of immigration policy, or the New Deal for PGRs, or Advance HE’s review of the UK Professional Standards Framework, or any number of other issues, many might reasonably ask if it’s nevertheless still necessary – and if so how it can be caused to happen.

Meanwhile, for the government, however successful the “New Vision for Education” strategy proves to be, a national student voice operation that can be politically framed as a mutant offshoot of Corbynism and doesn’t have the capacity to offer meaningful, constructive challenge on the day to day policy detail becomes almost too easy to dismiss.

Yet if our recent trip to Scandinavia signalled anything, it’s that national influencing work, including with sector bodies and the full breath of political parties, on education quality, HE funding, EDI and student safety and even academic freedom can still be hugely valuable and impactful – even if the relationship between the NUS president and the minister for education of the day is strained.

The point about good student representation is that it makes decision making and policy development better, it provides early signals about what students are really saying and it provides a place where students can “do” democracy, facilitating debates both about the “real world” and the student interest – and that’s true both locally and nationally.

That old Edwina Currie quote about NUS needing to exist because if its national voice and lobbying work wasn’t there “we’d have to invent it” is almost certainly apocryphal. But if it survives in the stories handed down about NUS, it’s probably because it’s also true.

If the sector goes for short-term political expediency by looking away as a hostile government turns its guns on the only national union of students that we have, that will help nobody. The question instead should be how it will help national voice and lobbying work to thrive without descending into hand-picked polite ventriloquism.

3 responses to “The government is “disengaging” from NUS. Does it matter?

  1. There’s something to be said in all this, which I think Jim says in a much more eloquent and subtle way, about not making yourself an easy target.

    A (significantly) right wing Tory government are never going to like the NUS – but… a lot of what was in Donelans statement is pretty fair? The NUS have been woeful for quite some time. It’s really unclear what they actually do. They play the Momentum/Reform Party angry from the sidelines and demanding revolutions, but they’ve had nothing to offer on the big issues for students these last years. Nevermind the Govt, they alienate most SUs – and the culture of bullying/intimidation around NUS is still there.

    If they didn’t exist, would anyone miss them now? Sad to say but it feels like they’re just broken. (The staff team doing union development are sensational and hard working and SUs would struggle without them, but arguably a reformed TSEP, a new membership body or this very site, could perform very similar roles).

  2. The contrived posturing by Government over “free speech” in universities is deplorable, but so too is the deafening silence from the Shadow Universities Minister who could be calling out Donelan & Co for culture warmongering.

    Instead Matt Western MP (you could be forgiven for not knowing the name) hasn’t even tweeted about HE since 26 April.

    Should we conclude that HE would face similar treatment under Labour because giving universities and students a metaphorical kicking is seen as good policy/PR in 2022? Perhaps Mr Western could be invited to explain.

    1. I think you have hit the nail on the head there. Labour is so worried about getting back the red wall, to whom this culture war nonsense is largely aimed, that they seem to neglect the fact that their base is probably closer to the university educated middle class. Also, if that is the road they are going down they are playing the Tories game which is motivated by what I hope are the death rattles of an overprivileged entitle elite who can see the end game coming with a more diverse and open minded young citizenry.

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