Exiter: The NUS is no longer fit for purpose

Over the next two weeks, Exeter University students are holding a referendum on whether to leave the NUS. Here Alasdair Gibbs of the craftily named Exiter campaign (get it? Exit/Exeter) sets out why he will be voting to leave.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of Exeter Students’ Guild. We’ve got one of the best organisations in the country which has time and time again been recognised on a national level. From my perspective working as a part of three society committees and two campaigns in the last two years, student representation has always been at the heart of everything the Guild does. As a result, it’s no surprise that we’re being given our second NUS referendum in 18 months. At the last referendum I voted to stay with the NUS, so what’s changed?

This year, I had every confidence that our Exeter delegates would moderate and oppose the sillier aspects of the conference we’d been warned about. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Watching the NUS conference unfold proved to be at best uncomfortable, and at worst, depressing.

Highlights include the now notorious motion to seek “restrictions” on anonymous accounts on the “menace” of Yik Yak (a platform that only exists as an anonymous forum) because it makes elections ‘unsafe’. The NUS vice-president for welfare Shelly Asquith was delighted to tell the conference that some student unions have already banned Yik Yak from their Wi-Fi, while others employ ‘monitors’ to make comments they disagree with disappear.

There was the Holocaust memorial embarrassment, with delegates applauded for arguing to block a national commemoration this year because it’s not inclusive. Delegates were apparently naïve to the fact that the Holocaust is often used as a way to educate and inform about other genocides and the fact that they still happen today. Thankfully, the motion to remember one of the deadliest genocides in history was ultimately passed.

There were the out of touch statements. Vice President for Further Education described our university system as “the most expensive in the world”. President Elect said that “teaching hasn’t progressed much since the Industrial Revolution”. We also learned that the government is “scared of the student movement”. News to many of us, and presumably news to the government. They didn’t seem scared when they tripled tuition fees, they didn’t seem scared when they stripped away maintenance grants, and they didn’t seem scared when they set tuition fees to rise again last year. Of course, the sensible direction this year was to pass a motion which means the NUS now has blanket opposition to any future higher education reforms, without knowing what they are.

Then came Malia Bouattia’s election. Malia has previously blocked a motion to condemn ISIS. That’s a fact. A spokesperson for the NUS said in a statement: “Some committee members felt that the wording of the motion being presented would unfairly demonise all Muslims”. Mailia recently told the Guardian “Its language appeared to condemn all Muslims, not just the terror group”. The in question motion proposed the following: support international students affected by terror, solidarity with the Iraqi people, supporting equality and democracy amongst Iraqi minorities, to encourage students to boycott anyone found to be providing soldiers, goods, training or funding to ISIS, to condemn ISIS and support the Kurdish forces fighting them, and finally to build solidarity with Iraqi and Kurdish organisations in order to support refugees. Bouattia’s other past comments and stances have also led to her being widely condemned for alleged anti-Semitism, with 57 leaders of Jewish Societies signing an open letter raising their concerns about this issue.

If anyone can highlight and defend exactly which part of that motion can in any way be construed as Islamophobic, I’m all ears. Calling her out for blocking the motion on a Guardian article left me accused of attacking her with a sexist, racist and Islamophobic motive. For me, this highlights a problem at their heart of extreme, divisive NUS politics. Those who choose to defend the NUS find themselves defending the indefensible. I’ve not even made reference to the many humiliating blunders of years gone by.

“The NUS is not perfect” say the stay campaign. No, I would certainly hope that the last five years in the NUS haven’t been considered to be anyone’s idea of perfect. Among her other comments, Malia oddly said in her election speech that the NUS conference isn’t about the NUS. So what is it about? It’s about years of soon-to-be professional politicians using it as a platform to promote their own political views. It’s an unaccountable, pretty much wholly undemocratic body where a tiny minority of students have any say or influence. Some NUS delegate election turnouts last year were lower than 1%. One union celebrated a “record” turnout in 2015, with 0.025% of students voting.

Reformable? No. Our Exeter delegates found themselves safely in the minority with other moderate candidates this year, and next year’s delegates would find themselves in exactly same place. I recently read a document that Durham Students’ Union put together in 2008. In it, the familiar sentiment that students didn’t feel represented by the NUS. Eight years of conferences later, has anything changed?

I’ll finish with this. I’m incredibly proud of the movement Exiter have created. Our open letter, yet to be published at the time of writing, includes a remarkably diverse list of signatories. Students, signing in a personal capacity, from more than 25 committees have come together to support our cause. The signatures don’t represent the views of the societies as a whole, but do underline that this is not a factional issue. Exeter students aren’t being represented, and to me, that’s inherently at odds with the values of our Guild.

• University of Exeter students can vote in the referendum here.