Student delegates from all over the country have arrived in Brighton for the National Union of Students’ annual conference. With the recent shock announcement of a snap general election and rekindled controversy over alleged antisemitism, this promises to be an explosive event.
Motions up for debate include proposals to defend political organisation on campus, fight Tory counter-reforms to Higher Education, support Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of a state-funded National Education Service, declare solidarity with Picturehouse cinema strikers ‒ and even abolish the monarchy!
However, the real fight will likely be waged in the NUS presidential elections. Left-wing incumbent, Malia Bouattia, attracted criticism during her election campaign last year for previously describing the University of Birmingham as “something of a Zionist outpost” ‒ a comment interpreted by some as anti-Semitic.
As with similar accusations levelled at Ken Livingstone, Malia’s clumsy, arguably insensitive comments were deliberately utilised by the right-wing of the NUS and the conservative press as a stick with which to beat the left.
Two other ‘left’ student officers, Ali Milani (currently a member of the union’s National Executive and is running to be its Vice President for Union Development) and Noorulann Shahid (LGBT+ Officer) have been similarly condemned after ill-advised tweets from as much as five years ago (when Milani was 17) were dredged up by the press. Both have apologised.
Using scaremongering around left-wing anti-Semitism as a springboard, the right-wing of the NUS aims to reassert control of the union this year.
Its best hope lies in ‘anti-establishment’ candidate Tom Harwood from the University of Durham. Harwood’s deliberately facetious manifesto (in which he promises to “Defeat ISIS using NUS boycotts” and “Ensure every lecture begins with a pledge of allegiance to the NUS”) is intended to satirise an NUS that he regards as excessively ‘ideological’. His serious policies promise to de-politicise the union and ensure it reflects the interests of ‘ordinary’ students (in other words ‒ the right-wing ones).
Current Further Education officer, Shakira Martin, is running on a platform based on her experiences of coming from a working-class family in Lewisham, and feeling let down by the mainstream education system. Her manifesto pledges to break down “class barriers to learning” and support students hit by homelessness and sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, the NUS under Bouattia’s leadership has supported rent strikes, backed the UCU in its national pay dispute and vocally supported the NSS boycott ‒ aimed at undercutting the reactional Teaching Excellence Framework. Bouattia promises to carry forward this outward-looking, explicitly political approach in the coming year should she be re-elected.
However, one can only hope that, if Bouattia wins, she will push for a much more struggle against the Tory’s disastrous mismanagement of the HE and FE sectors ‒ that has cost livelihoods and destroyed students’ mental health. Fudging some of Ipsos Mori’s figures in a manner that might impact on the TEF isn’t really up to snuff.
This core crisis within the NUS is embodied by Motion 310, from Huddersfield University, which aims to make the “NUS impartial and inclusive of all students regardless of any established political stance” ‒ an explicit snipe at the burgeoning left-political character of the union.
Marxist and progressive delegates at NUS Conference must vociferously fight all attempts to depoliticise the union. We must build on the incremental steps taken in the past year and go further, adopting a radical programme to defend the education sector by building socialism in Britain and beyond.
We will keep you updated with developments on the conference as they unfold.
By the Marxist Student Federation.