Voting has opened in the 2022 Students’ Association’s referendum on National Union of Students (NUS) affiliation.
A motion to hold a referendum on NUS membership passed at a Student Representative Council (SRC) meeting on 1 February 2022. The motion passed with 15 voting yes, 1 voting no, and 2 abstaining.
St Andrews maintains a long tradition of rejecting the NUS. In 1975 the University voted to disaffiliate, and in subsequent referendums in 2001 and 2012 rejected the chance to re-affiliate, whilst a referendum in 2015 was cancelled due to lack of interest. On this occasion students are faced with two questions. The first question regards joining NUS UK, whilst the second regards joining the NUS charity. Both are Yes/No questions.
NUS UK is a confederate association of around 600 students’ unions, representing, according to its website, around 7 million students. Around 95% of UK universities are currently represented by the NUS, but this does not include the students’ unions of Glasgow and Dundee, nor Imperial College London, Loughborough, and Southampton—among others.
The NUS charity, according to the Vote Yes to NUS campaign team, provides “support, learning and development to students’ associations to develop and grow so they can better represent you and influence change”. It also unites students’ associations “to strengthen the collective, and to champion St Andrews Union nationally.”
In 2010, then-President of the Student’s Association Andrew Keenan came out against NUS affiliation in a blog written in his capacity as President. He wrote that “We…don’t have too much faith in the effectiveness or democratic value of the NUS’s systems”, and claimed that the reason St Andrews rejected NUS affiliation in 2001 was because St Andrews had developed its own systems for campaigning for its students outside the NUS. He concluded:
“We’ve developed the capacity to work for our students on our own terms – and believe me, it works well for us. We’d rather constantly build upon the legacy we inherit from the previous generation of St Andrews students to create a strong, active and nationally well-regarded and respected student community – we’ve never needed outside help to do so, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.”
Current President Lottie Doherty points out that the student body has changed since past referendums. When asked why the SRC felt that now was the appropriate time to hold such a referendum, she said that:
“It’s been several years since the last NUS referendum and a lot has changed since then.
“We’ve got an entirely different student body and they deserve to have a say on how the Students’ Association works, including whether it affiliates to NUS or not.
“I think a big factor in the past decisions not to affiliate has been the financial cost of joining NUS—but affiliation fees have been lowered in recent years so the cost of joining may not have the negative impact people thought it would in previous years.”
The Vote Yes to NUS campaign team have echoed Ms Doherty’s statement. Their Facebook page claims that joining the NUS will reward the Union with benefits totalling far more than the £16,000 membership fee.
Zaine Mansuralli, leader of the Say No to NUS campaign team, put this claim into perspective. He said: “The basis of the Yes campaign’s figures is the Scottish government’s additional funding for student support during the pandemic. However, as former NUS Scotland President Liam McCabe conceded during the debate on Tuesday, the St Andrew’s Students’ Association campaigned alongside the NUS for this funding. Crucially, we (and other non-NUS unions like Glasgow) were able to campaign for this funding and receive the benefits without paying £15,900 for NUS membership, more than double what the union spent on societies last year.”
He went on to point out that the NUS also demonstrated a persistent culture of antisemitic behaviour that did not ring true with the values of equality and inclusivity held by St Andrews. He stated that:
“Recent examples of this include the incoming NUS President’s praise for antisemitic figures and the incumbent President’s suggestion that Jewish students should self-segregate at an NUS event, demonstrating that sadly antisemitism is still prevalent at the highest levels of the NUS.”
The No campaign have posted four links to articles on their Facebook page which link the NUS to antisemitism.
The Say Yes to NUS countered this on their Facebook page with examples of NUS statements and Tweets condemning antisemitism. Phoebe Dobie, deputy spokesperson of the Say Yes to NUS campaign, dismissed accusations of antisemitism in the NUS. She said that: "The urge to label any left-wing organisation that has pro-Palestinian views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as antisemitic is symptomatic of a world-wide dismissal of left-wing activism. Anti-Zionism is not equal to antisemitism.
"Secondly, in reality antisemitism exists at every level of British governance and political organisation as a country that has inherited biases from its Anglo-Christian, ethnocentric past, so I believe it would be hard to find a single organisation of similar size to the NUS that does not face issues of inside antisemitism.
"It is a prejudice that must be systematically deconstructed, and one that can be more easily tackled in the NUS if St Andrews were to have a representative at national meetings to speak our opinions.
"Thirdly, I have yet to be presented with any actual instances of antisemitism from the NUS despite controversial anti-Zionist sentiments expressed by a previous NUS president, who is no longer a part of the organisation."
At the time of writing, current Director of Student Development and Activities Avery Kitchens and Union Debating Society Chief Whip Cara Shepherd have endorsed the No campaign.
Both current-President of the Students’ Association Lottie Doherty and incoming President Juan Pablo Rodriguez refused to endorse a side publicly.
Ms Doherty claimed that “the most important thing to do is read through all the information available and consider all the possible effects that the NUS could have on the Students’ Association and how they could impact your student experience.”
Mr Rodriguez meanwhile urged students to “have a look at both positions, what is offered by each alternative and ponder whether the benefits really outweigh the costs or not.”
Voting remains open until 6pm. The result is binding, but a turnout of 20% must be reached for the result to come into effect.
Image: Palatinate and Olivia Bybel