The National Union of Students has been accused of "actively encouraging" students’ unions to pull out of the upcoming Free Education demo - after it withdraw support over health and safety concerns.
Students’ unions up and down the country are dropping out of next week’s Free Education demo, with up to a quarter of unions outside London said to be reconsidering their position.
York University Students’ Union has joined Birmingham’s Guild of Students and Essex Students’ Union in cancelling their coaches to London, while Oxford University Students’ Union have put its involvement under review, after the NUS cited “significant concerns regarding an unacceptable level of risk” when it pulled out early last week.
Toni Pearce, president of the NUS, said in a statement: “We have commissioned and paid for the best risk assessment possible based on incomplete information that we were given by organisers, and it is clear that there are inadequate measures in place to mitigate against significant risks in line with our advice posing an unacceptable level of risk.”
But the student groups organising the march have rubbished concerns over accessibility and insurance, which they say have never been problems in the past.
NUS Scotland, run under a separate leadership, has similarly dismissed NUS England's worries.
Kirsty Haigh, the Scottish arm's vice president for communities, said: “We support the national demonstration and our officer team is looking forward to attend.
“The organisers have told us they have met the necessary safety requirements and so, as always, we believe the biggest threat to students’ safety on the demonstration will be the police.”
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), one of the groups staging the demo, went further and accused the NUS of privately persuading students’ unions to pull out, branding its conduct “absolutely shameful".
Deborah Hermanns, an NCAFC member, told the Huffington Post UK: “The reason they pulled out was political. The leadership opposes free education and they were looking for a reason from day one.
“They have not only just pulled passive support. I have spoken to students’ unions who have been called by the NUS leadership and encouraged to withdraw support. It is absolutely shameful.”
The NCAFC passed on an email sent by NUS vice president for further education, Joe Vinson, to all students’ union presidents last Friday, outlining further safety concerns in depth.
The email concluded: “Overall we still believe that the demonstration poses an unacceptable level of risk to participants.
“Of course, students' unions should continue to make their own decisions on attendance. If you would like to talk about the decision your students' union is making then please get in touch and we will be happy to advise.”
The NUS has emphatically denied the allegations.
A union spokesperson said: “The allegations of NUS making a concerted effort to get individual unions to withdraw their support is absolutely false. There is no truth whatsoever in these allegations.
“The NUS have been speaking to staff and sabbs at individual member unions who have requested to speak with NUS officers.
“We have been asked by unions to explain our position, which we have done. We have always stressed throughout that any decision to participate is entirely up to the individual union.”
Thousands are expected to attend the march, organised by a coalition of student groups under the banner ‘Free Education: No Fees, No Cuts, No Debt’ on November 19.