Last March, I was honoured to be elected as part of Edinburgh’s delegation to the NUS national conference. As a first-year undergraduate student, it represented an exciting opportunity to engage with student issues, and to represent our university’s students at a national level. I was also apprehensive. The NUS has been the subject of much controversy of late, ranging from rows about the outgoing president Malia Bouattia to multiple disaffiliation referendums in 2016, which saw three student unions vote to leave the organisation.
My fears were assuaged when the conference first met in Brighton last Tuesday. Across three days of wide-ranging debate, the NUS took bold steps to take the student activist movement in the right direction. We voted to launch a campaign to increase voter registration among students; we passed a motion to effectively and resolutely combat anti-Semitism; our commitment to free education and living grants was reaffirmed; we allocated funding to provide free sanitary products as part of a campaign to end period poverty; and, most significantly, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging structural reforms in NUS history were voted in. These reforms – themselves a reaction to the low student satisfaction in the NUS – will make the organisation more democratic and transparent for students outside of the political bubble. For the first time, every student will be able to vote on what work the NUS will prioritise in a post-conference ballot, while absentee balloting will allow more individual student unions to help elect full time officers. I left the conference assured that the NUS is moving in the right direction, proud that I had been able to represent Edinburgh’s interests within the student movement.
However, I was disheartened (although not altogether shocked) when none of this progress was reflected in national coverage of the event. Instead, the right-wing press chose to focus on one of the most inconsequential elements of the conference. Yes, we were collectively asked not to clap, and instead to use ‘jazz hands’ in order to make the venue more accessible for students who may suffer from disabilities such as anxiety or deafness. There are several issues with this reporting. Firstly, the gesture is actually designated sign language indicating applause: to reduce it ‘jazz hands’ is condescending to delegates and students suffering from genuine hearing disabilities. Secondly, the rule itself was scarcely enforced, and – as videos showed – many of us continued to clap when it was appropriate to do so. Finally, the rule was implemented after calls to do so from the NUS’ autonomous disabilities caucus – who the hell were we, a conference comprised of mostly non-disabled students, to undermine and ignore them on this issue?
What should be more worrying to the average student is why the UK press chose to report such a progressive and momentous conference in a way which denigrates and patronises students. Ever since the mass demonstrations against increasing tuition fees first made headlines back in 2010, the press has launched a sustained campaign against the student movement. Papers which supported the government in their destructive higher education policies sought to diminish and insult our generation, painting us as intolerant, overly-sensitive ‘snowflakes’. The irony should not escape us. We are ostensibly intolerant of other opinions, yet it is the Right who fly into fits of incomprehensible rage at the way we choose to operate our conferences. We are pampered and spoilt; and yet it is the older generation who enjoyed the benefits of free higher education and living grants, while we carry the burden of massive debt and collective stress.
At the conference, we failed to give in to their narrative. Instead of re-electing an outgoing president accused of anti-Semitism, we elected a centre-left moderate. In Shakira Martin, we now have an advocate of free speech, a passionate voice for student rights, and a living embodiment of the transformative power of education. But this doesn’t make for interesting reading; this doesn’t fit their image of the student movement. Instead, the press chose to continue to insult the NUS.
Troublingly, many students have chosen to accept this narrative. Edimeme themselves shared the clapping story, published this time in the Daily Express. Certainly, student dissatisfaction in the NUS is largely understandable. Indeed, there were times at the conference when petty factionalism and relentless bureaucracy were predominant, preventing us from reaching motions and making much needed change. (On this note, I would especially like to apologise to the 30% of Edinburgh’s students who come here from overseas. Politicking prevented a vital motion on international students’ rights from being read, and that was unacceptable). However, more often than not, the most vitriolic attacks on the NUS from within the student body come from students who would never think to vote in delegate elections, let alone stand themselves and directly engage with student issues. By failing to democratically engage when given the opportunity, these students waive their rights to condemn the NUS. Whilst I did not personally vote for him, I admire the anti-NUS presidential candidate Tom Harwood for actually taking the initiative to stand and express his criticisms. But in this respect, he is, unfortunately, a rarity.
Most of us agree there is merit in a representative body for students, especially in the face of the current government. As we sat in conference, a Higher Education Bill was passed in parliament that immediately gives universities the right to raise tuition fees yet again. We as students are under assault. In these hard times, the impetus is on all students to stop fighting each other, to stop mocking the work of the dedicated activists I met last week, and fight for an education system that works for us all.
Image: LSE Library