In case you hadn't heard, the National Union of Students (NUS) is in hot water. After accusations of undemocratic behaviour, anti-Semitism from the President and otherwise astonishing politics from a bunch of secretive radical cliques, it faces mutiny from numerous universities, asking their students to vote on whether the individual unions should remain a part of the national body. The Universities of Lincoln and Newcastle have elected to leave, though Surrey and Exeter wish to stay. At York my fellow students are campaigning for the annual referendum on our membership to be brought forward by a year. I'll be keeping an eye out for more results from Oxford, Cambridge, Hull and elsewhere, though perhaps not as keenly as the NUS.
For many students like me, we're perfectly aware of the mixed reaction to the new NUS President and its latest conference proceedings, but not quite aware of just what, in general, is supposedly wrong with the NUS. Maybe to my shame as someone with an interest in politics, I'm one of many students whose engagement with the NUS boils down to the frequent use its excellent 10% discount at the Co-Op. I should know more about this organisation, what it does and how it spends my money; unfortunately, the more I hear about the NUS, the more I don't like.
The possession of a repulsive and self-contradictory political agenda and its having an anti-Semitic leader are two of the main recent charges against the NUS. I am unsure of whether it is my place to engage in those criticisms. They do not affect me as much as others and I do not wish to claim to have more knowledge or experience than them.
However, the NUS's ventures into politics should rile anyone. In March my university's student union was reportedly going to hold a referendum on whether it should support 'Brexit'. I wrote an opinion piece for my student newspaper arguing that as soon as my student union adopts a political opinion, even one done for symbolic reasons, it divides its membership. The same logic applies to the NUS, which has committed greater crimes than my own union. Why does the NUS think about solidarity with the Kurdish people? Why did the NUS spend £40,000 on a billboard campaign against the Liberal Democrats? Why would the NUS like to debate policy asking for the reselection of Labour candidates? It doesn't strike me as things for which a union should campaign. Though I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons to do so, standing up for Kurds seems to go way beyond the purpose of a union for students.
The NUS is a union of unions representing students up and down the country, defending their interests and providing them with a voice, just as all trade unions do for their workers. Students in this country have to deal with large tuition fees that will leave them with larger debts for many years after they earn their degrees; with no income besides a small grant they must manage to pay the rent, utilities and buy their food. The unluckier souls among us fall foul of addiction and depression. On these grounds, a student union has more than enough material to use in its activism.
Why then should the NUS get any more political than it needs to? As soon as the NUS takes a political decision - for example, campaigning for students to reject treasonous Liberal Democrat MPs - it has contradicted its own function. At once, Liberal Democrat students feel alienated. How can the NUS claim to stand up for student interests when it actively fights students who support a particular political party or hold a specific political opinion? Unless the NUS can put forward a stunning, undeniable argument, fit for the finest philosophical journal, that allegiance to a certain political party is always bad for a student's welfare and interests, its leaders have some explaining to do.
Malia Bouattia is critical of what she believes to be an infection of Zionism in student media. I have no idea how true her belief is, but she's entitled to think what she likes and her election to presidency does not mean she is henceforth forbidden from holding her own opinions. However, the challenge is to ensure that her political opinions don't become NUS policy. From the reaction of many Jewish students around the country, it seems as though they don't trust her to keep the NUS inclusive and welcoming to all students. While holding the position, the NUS President should put his or her politics to one side and fight for the common welfare of students; I hope that Bouattia can do just that.
If the NUS sides with the Kurdish people, it means, regardless of its being the right or wrong thing to do, that students who wouldn't agree are excluded - their own organisation disagrees with them and cannot fully represent them in the way that it once did. Party politics puts me off the NUS. It must stick to its purpose of standing up for students rather than furthering a political agenda belonging only to its top officers.