I found myself in the rather unusual, and uncomfortable, position of agreeing with new backbencher Michael Gove during our last week in Parliament before the summer recess. In the debate on the government’s Higher Education Bill, Mr Gove described the National Union of Students as a “chilling environment and a cold home for students, particularly those who are Jewish”.
Last week, Izzy Lenga, a member of the NUS National Executive Council (NEC) described the movement as “toxic for Jewish students”, following a decision by the NEC to abandon the long-established tradition that the NUS anti-racism would be co-convened by a Jewish student in consultation with the Union of Jewish Students. To add insult to injury, one NUS executive member referred to an amendment in the debate as “not the final solution”.
This latest embarrassment is only the latest in a string of incidents during the past year that have left NUS’ reputation in tatters. Its new president attracted controversy by referring to the University of Birmingham as a “Zionist outpost” on account of its large and well-organised Jewish society. She also trotted out the old antisemitic trope of Jews controlling the media with a tirade against the “Zionist-led media outlets”. A motion to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day was subjected to an unprecedented level of controversy and debate at this year’s NUS conference.
That the Union of Jewish Students has concluded that ‘NUS, and specifically the NUS President, have no desire to listen to Jewish students’ will inevitably be met with concern by Jewish students and the wider Jewish community. If this were not enough to spur students and students’ unions to ask what on earth their NUS leaders are playing at, they should be in no doubt about the damage this is doing to NUS’ standing beyond UK Jewry.
All students will suffer as a result of the reputational damage to NUS. If NUS can no longer claim to represent all students, irrespective of background, its legitimacy as the national voice for all students is undermined. Ministers will find it easy to marginalise NUS when students need it to be at its most influential.
The Higher Education Bill making its way through Parliament carries with it real risks for students. It paves the way for further inflation-busting increases to university tuition fees. It offers little assistance for students struggling to make ends meet following the abolition of student grants and the new Office for Students has no student representation on its board. The best that the new ‘radical’ leadership of NUS could offer in response was a march that couldn’t be heard on the Parliamentary estate and attracted barely any attention in the media. Apparently there was a sit-in in the Department for Education. Not that anyone seemed to notice.
NUS’ drift to the hard left has led to a wider political malaise that has seen a number of students’ unions choose to disaffiliate following campus-wide ballots. A number of university students’ unions, including Hull, Lincoln and Loughborough have already chosen to leave. Further ballots may occur in the autumn, as increasing numbers of students choose to give up on a union that they feel has given up on representing them.
Many Jewish students are now questioning their place in NUS. Some Jewish societies campaigned for their students’ unions to disaffiliate from NUS. Others may contemplate joining them when they return to university in the autumn. This would be a mistake.
Students need a strong national voice – now more than ever. NUS has a proud history and it has a bright future so long as there are students willing to stand up and fight for it.