We need the NUS more than ever

Amelia Oakley 26 May 2016

This referendum campaign has become increasingly polarised. But there’s one thing both sides agree on: this is a frightening time for the higher education sphere.

Last week, the Government released its plans for higher education in their white paper, ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’. It confirmed what we knew was coming: that the Tories are intent on turning our universities from places of learning into a market, whose only purpose is economic productivity.

‘Excellent’ institutions will be able to raise tuition fees again – you can count on Cambridge being classed as ‘excellent’. We are now being seen as consumers and economic products. Surely none of us wants such a system. We need a national union to lobby against it.

Now I know what you’re thinking. That didn’t stop them raising tuition fees before. And that’s true enough, though I’d be inclined to blame Nick Clegg rather than the NUS. But this reform is coming at a time when the government has a majority of 12, not 80, when it has suffered defeats on tax credits, academies, police cuts, disability payments and more. A united student body stands a good chance of defeating some dreadful reforms. A divided student body doesn’t have a prayer.

That’s why we need the NUS in the future. But it’s also won a lot for us in the past: an exemption from council tax; student railcards; postgraduate loans; a national inquiry into sexual harassment on campus. And it’s been the central opposition, along with the National Union of Teachers, to the government’s racialized, free speech-attacking Prevent agenda. The NUS may feel distant, but its impacts are real, as is the training and support it offers to liberation campaigns and sabbatical officers. We all stand to lose out if we leave the NUS, but most of all it will be disadvantaged students within society. They’re the ones who suffered most when maintenance grants were abolished.

But of course, many on the Yes campaign feel the same. Their driving argument has been that we cannot remain in an institution with embedded issues of anti-Semitism. It’s an argument we respect enormously, and none of us wants to underestimate the problem of anti-Semitism within the NUS or broader society. We want an anti-racist NUS standing up for student rights.

That’s why we welcome the announcement that a proposal will be brought to the NUS’s National Executive Council to restore the automatic Jewish position on the Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist campaign. If we stay affiliated, we can also ensure that the NUS’s internal review of institutional racism, with specific regard to anti-Semitism, comes up with tangible proposals that address the concerns many Jewish students have expressed about the NUS.

But if they are in any way lacking, our answer must be to engage and overcome. We didn’t fill all the Cambridge NUS delegate positions this year. So let’s stand for them, and make sure the NUS reforms properly. It’s better than shouting from the sidelines. It can deliver real change. As allies, we need to stand up for Jewish students. We recognise they should not have to stand for delegate to feel safe in the NUS. The rest of us should be up there fighting anti-Semitism.

Reforms are also being delivered on democracy within the NUS. A strategic review of the organisation is under way. There will be a renewed push for One Member One vote. As the NUS Vice-President Richard Brooks has said, this is actually an exciting time to be within the NUS. Every national institution is inherently distant, but the NUS can be much less so. We can be a part of the change.

Let’s straighten some things out. No, Malia Bouattia, does not support ISIS. She fought a motion she considered Islamophobic condemning ISIS, and came back to the next Council with a re-worded one. Sounds like sensible policy-making to me. And no, the NUS did not try and ban Yik-Yak. It tried to address anonymous abuse on the site, at a time when the issue of online abuse is becoming increasingly prominent.

In fact, if we actually look at the manifesto of the NUS President-Elect, we’ll find some familiar points. Address the black attainment gap? Fight Prevent? These are the same policies that the current CUSU President-elect Amatey Doku, by all means no radical, stood on. Cambridge students support these policies. Let’s not listen to scare stories from those who only ever offer cynicism.

One last thing. Let’s not forget, the NUS is our union, defending our rights. These rights are under attack by a political party which has shown astonishing contempt for young people in this country. Divide ourselves now, and we’re giving them an open goal. 

Cuts and fees affect minorities more than anyone else. Combined with the support the NUS offers for liberation campaigns, leaving would harm those who are at-risk within our society. Those who are disadvantaged by society face a double-whammy when the support is cut and the fees are raised. That disproportionally means women and ethnic minorities, as the NUS has pointed out. Those who say we can reaffiliate in three years aren’t the ones who stand to lose out.

All across the world the forces seeking to splinter, to withdraw, to ‘go it alone’, are on the rise. Hell, we’re having a referendum on membership of the European Union. But the truth is, leaving the NUS will do nothing but harm students. The more I’ve got involved in this campaign, the more terrified I have become of that prospect. Let’s reform the NUS, let’s make it inclusive for all, but please, let’s not cut ourselves adrift.