A Better Durham launches NUS disaffilation campaign

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The campaign – “A Better Durham’’ – was launched last week by publishing an open letter addressed to the Durham Students’ Union’s trustees imploring the Durham SU to consider holding a referendum as to whether Durham SU should remain affiliated with the NUS.

The letter was signed by 50 ‘Student Leaders’, including the co-Chair of the Labour Club, Tom Purvis, President of the Conservative Association, Piers MacKenzie-Baker, and the leader of the Students for Britain campaign, Tom Harwood.

It read: “Recent moves made by the NUS, culminating in the election of Malia Bouattia as president, serve to misrepresent, divide, and marginalize many Durham students.

We feel that a failure to act is a tacit endorsement of the disturbing direction in which the NUS is drifting.”

The letter concluded by imploring the trustees to “let Durham decide, this term. We cannot stand by any longer as students are misrepresented and marginalized.”

Tom Harwood told Palatinate: “We want the Durham SU to decide, this term. We have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to our campaign and believe we can definitely win, as long as people can put their dislike of the NUS into action.

“The reaction from universities around the country speak for themselves. Now over 25 universities have credible movements to disaffiliate. Students have had enough.”

Jade Azim, another coordinator of the campaign also told Palatinate: “We will be talking to students across campus to get their support for the referendum itself. When that goes ahead, we will be out on campus making the case for leaving.”

‘A Better Durham’ campaign has been one of a number of student union campaigns nationally that have been established amid growing discontent with the NUS, sparked by the controversial election of the new national president, Malia Bouattia.

Ms. Bouattia has faced allegations of anti-Semitism due to actions that have dated back a number of years. In 2011, she co-authored an article where she referred to the University of Birmingham as “something of a Zionist outpost in British higher education”. At the time, the letter came to the attention of over 300 heads of Jewish Student Societies.

Further comments from the now NUS president have included condemning ‘Zionist led media outlets’. Her appointment as President has lead nearly 50 Jewish societies nationally to write an open letter to Ms. Bouattia, expressing their concerns.

Jack May, Leader of ‘Let Cambridge Decide’, the Cambridge University NUS disaffiliation campaign, described the appointment of Ms. Boutattia as “a horrifying message to Jewish students in the UK.”

Ms. Bouattia has strongly denied the allegations put to her that she is anti-Semitic. In a statement she said: “I have a long track record of opposing racism and discrimination in all its forms and actively campaigning against it. Jews have faced horrendous persecution over thousands of years and Jewish students on campuses and elsewhere continue to face anti-Semitism.”

However, for the ‘A Better Durham’ campaign, along with similar campaigns at other universities, the motivation behind the desire to disaffiliate with the NUS goes beyond the controversial appointment of Malia Bouattia, although this is a significant factor.

Tom Harwood told Palatinate: “The election of Malia is merely a symptom of the fundamental and structural problems of the NUS, and its consistent moves to the extremes, misrepresenting students.”

Similarly, Harry Samuels, an NUS delegate for Oxford University explained on BBC’s Newsnight programme that the appointment of Ms. Bouattia was the ‘straw that has broken the camel’s back.’

A crucial problem with the NUS is that many of the issues it tries to tackle are not the pressing relevant issues that the student populations face around the country, according to various members of the ‘A Better Durham’ campaign.

Problems with the NUS as an organisation were outlined in an article written by Sam Bentwood, a member of ‘A Better Durham’ campaign and former member of Durham University’s Jewish Society (JSoc). The article can be found on Palatinate Online.

In the article Sam said an effective union is one “that is truly democratic, open and appeals to all, not just a narrow few.

“We should have a union that spends all its time talking about real student issues, not one that spends so much time debating grand geo-political issues that are the business of other forums.”

reiterated this failing of the NUS in her personal blog “On why I’ll be campaigning to leave the NUS” by suggesting the organisation could be improved by “Recognising the limits of an organisation for students, and identifying what motions benefit campuses within the capacity of the NUS.”

Speaking to Palatinate, Azim also said, “The NUS is a liability, rather than an asset, in getting our voices heard nationally.

“Durham has enough prestige and name recognition for us to stand on our own two feet. It’ll probably improve our reputation to distance ourselves from the NUS.”

When asked about the Durham SU’s reaction to the campaign, told Palatinate: “The DSU officers understand their role is to care about what the students care about. They see the strength of the feeling on this issue and feel a referendum is appropriate.”

Outgoing President of the Durham SU, Millie Tanner, also told Palatinate “If our student members vote to leave the NUS, I will of course support that decision, recognising the importance of our student body having confidence that they are accurately and fairly represented at the national level.”

“On the issue of relevance, I completely agree that NUS is not relevant enough to students at the moment. But I believe that walking away isn’t the answer – we need to stay in, stay involved and fix it from within – just like if you don’t like the way your JCR/MCR is being run, you pass a motion, or run to be President, or hold the officers to account. Our Students’ Union has considerable influence within our own University but will never have a voice on a wider level without the agency of our national union.”

Photograph: Tom Harwood

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