Education & Family

Student unions split on leaving NUS in row over president

Malia Bouattia Image copyright NUS
Image caption Malia Bouattia's previous comments have caused some controversy and led to claims of anti-Semitism in student politics

Students at Exeter University have voted to stay in the National Union of Students after those at Newcastle and Lincoln voted to leave this week.

Similar votes are taking place amid concerns of anti-Semitism after Malia Bouattia's election as president.

Oxford and Cambridge are among others planning disaffiliation votes.

Ms Bouattia has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, which she says were part of a political argument rather than one of religion.

Surrey University Student Union has also voted to remain affiliated.

At Exeter 5,334 students voted - just under 31% of those eligible and a high turnout for a student vote.

Of these:

  • 2,546 voted in favour of disaffiliation
  • 2,690 voted to remain
  • 98 said they were neutral or confused.
  • this gave a majority of 144 in favour of remaining.

Exeter's Students Guild president, Laura-Jane Tiley, who led the Stay Campaign said she believed Exeter students were best served by being part of the NUS.

"It is great that we have been able to convince a majority of students voting that this is the case," she said.

"Like the Leave campaign we do believe that the NUS needs to change, but that the best way of doing this is to remain a part of the organisation."

But the #Exiter campaign to disaffiliate complained that the referendum had "turned into an absolute farce" because of an over-pushy remain campaign, repeated visits from national officers including Ms Bouattia and dirty tricks.

The national NUS had pumped "all its resources" into the Exeter vote, said an #Exiter spokesman.

"We do not feel there was parity between both sides and on that grounds, we take the result with a pinch of salt. We will be asking for another referendum in 2016-17 with clearly defined regulations and enforcement of them," he added.


Dominic Fearon, president of Newcastle University Student's Union, said Newcastle students' fears predated the election of Ms Bouattia.

"It is clear that our students feel that the NUS no longer represents their views, does not prioritise correctly and is not effective at achieving change".

He added: "The current discontent amongst students nationally can be measured in the number of student unions considering holding referenda on their membership.

"We hope that the NUS will acknowledge their shortcomings and will work to become the national union that students deserve and can identify with."

Hayley Jayne Wilkinson, University of Lincoln Students' Union president, said: "For some time we have felt that the focus of debate within the NUS has been far removed from the issues that our students tell us are important to them every day on campus."

Ms Bouattia, 28, is the first black Muslim to hold the post of NUS president.

She arrived in the UK aged seven and in her election speech, she said her family had been forced to flee their home in Algeria after "terrorists rained gunfire" on her school.

She attended the University of Birmingham from 2006 to 2014 and has held the post of NUS Black Students Officer since 2014.

'Zionist politics'

Ms Bouattia's campaigns have included Why Is My Curriculum White? and she has opposed the government's Prevent counter-extremism strategy.

In 2011, she co-wrote a blog for a Friends of Palestine campaign group saying that "the University of Birmingham is something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education".

Image copyright Exeter university
Image caption Exeter is among the first of several universities to hold disaffiliation referenda

In 2014 she made comments about what she said were "mainstream Zionist-led media outlets".

She has since said she is "extremely uncomfortable with insinuations of anti-Semitism", adding: "For me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish."

She has also been accused of not supporting a motion condemning so-called Islamic State.

But the NUS says this was because she disputed the wording of the motion and not the principle.

Other student unions planning disaffiliation votes include Warwick, Hull, Cambridge, Worcester, Loughborough, Oxford, and York.

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