Reforming Students' Unions

Home Affairs
Monday, July 11, 2016
Luke Wilson


The NUS is just the tip of the iceberg: Students’ Unions all over the country need to reform.

NUS presidential elections rarely make national headlines, yet the election of Malia Bouattia to the post has done so, with some universities voting to disaffiliate altogether.

For many, her election confirmed fears that the NUS has become more concerned with making political statements, protecting their coveted ‘safe space policy’, and continuing to be a vanity project for overpaid out-of-touch student officers, rather than effectively voicing the concerns of students.

However, if there is one problem which transcends worrying signs of institutional anti-Semitism, it is the politicisation of the NUS. The NUS recently held votes on the EU referendum and the renewal of Trident at its national conference. Although important issues, they can be easily split along partisan lines, and as a result, are fiercely contested by students across the political spectrum.

No one would dispute that the NUS should be a space for debate, but how can the NUS take a position on such issues, and still purport to represent all its student members?

Sadly, this kind of unnecessary politicisation is not confined to the NUS, and is worryingly prevalent in Students’ Unions (SUs) up and down the country. My own university is a case in point: at this year’s Annual Member’s Meeting, the University of Bristol SU voted on and passed a motion entitled ‘Divesting from Israel’s Illegal Occupation of the West Bank’.

This motion was heavily criticised by the university’s Jewish Society and by the wider student community, not least because calling Israel’s occupation ‘illegal’ in the motion’s wording made no attempt at a balanced argument. The argument here was not a constructive one on the nature of Israel’s occupation and the Israel-Palestine conflict in general.

It was a politically motivated motion that angered as many students as it engaged, with students leaving the meeting in their droves.

It was then wholly inappropriate for the SU to allow such a vote to go ahead, which was so obviously split along partisan lines. Similar concerns were raised when it voted in favour of motion supporting Britain remaining in the EU; a motion that students on both sides of the debate criticised as inappropriate given the broad range of views held across the entire student body. How can SUs really represent all their students if they are not impartial?

Bristol is not alone in this. Recently, Manchester University SU declared itself a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)-free zone, and London School of Economics SU voted to condemn UK bombing in Syria. These are indicative of a student union culture that has lost its way; a culture more concerned with politically motivated statements than effectively representing a diverse body of students.

The alarming number of union meetings that don’t reach quoracy is testament to the negative impact of this kind of campaigning.  It has driven many students to lose faith in their SU, as well as distracting from the issues of more immediate concern for students, such as rising rents, possible future tuition fee rises and degree satisfaction.

Students’ Unions all around the country must wake up and realise the appetite for more effective representation and impartiality, otherwise they too will be tarnished with the same brush as the NUS.

Luke Wilson is a student at the University of Bristol and a contributor at the Bow Group