Explained: What led up to the government ‘disengaging’ with the NUS and what happens next

The National Union of Students has been cut off from government funding and representation over claims of antisemitism

The government announced last week it will “temporarily disengage with the National Union of Students (NUS)” due to allegations of antisemitism.

This means the NUS will be removed from and replaced by others in the Department for Education groups and cut off from government funding. But it will not affect its affiliation with the 600 student unions and seven million uni students across the country.

So what happened and will happen next? Here’s a full breakdown of the situation:

Allegations of anti-semitism

The NUS has faced allegations of anti-semitism over the years, but there have been several in recent months. 

The union announced a conference earlier this year would host rapper Lowkey. Lowkey has previously expressed support for sacked Bristol lecturer David Miller and in an online interview said the mainstream media has “weaponised the Jewish heritage of Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, to try to stave off these genuine inquiries into the nature of the groups fighting in Ukraine.”

Nina Freedman, president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), told MailOnline she thought the NUS had “brushed Jewish students aside and have shown a complete disregard for their needs and experiences.”

The NUS later said Lowkey had pulled out of the conference.

It also said it was “sad to see the use of harassment and misinformation against Lowkey” but was “actively looking forward to welcoming Jewish students to NUS National Conference 2022 in Liverpool.”

It said: “We are horrified to know that some students in our community, particularly Jewish students, may now be wondering if they will be fully comfortable at our upcoming events. We’re very sorry to any students who are hurt by some of the things they’ve read about NUS in the last few days.”

Shaima Dallali

Then, the NUS’s new president-elect, Shaima Dallali was accused of “attacking the Jewish community” by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). Dallali told The Tab: “I welcome accountability and scrutiny of myself, the spaces around us, the structures that confine us and the very education system we find ourselves in. This is precisely why I chose to run for this position. I stand ready to listen to the concerns of all students on how we can make our movement inclusive and open to all.”

In March, it emerged that back in 2012, Dallali tweeted a chant which refers to a historical massacre of Jews. She was quick to apologise when the tweet surfaced, saying: “The reference made as a teenager was unacceptable and I sincerely and unreservedly apologise.”

In April, Dallali came under fire for “harassing” students outside an event hosting a former Israeli politician at King’s College London. A video resurfaced in which Dallali and other protestors repeatedly shout “shame” at students leaving the talk.

In response to these claims, Dallali told The Tab: “My hands are outstretched to all students that work in our movement, including Jewish students.”

Palestinian student groups at 23 unis expressed “outrage”. They said they “reject the smear campaign and harassment of Shaima Dallali” and said she has their “full confidence” as NUS president.

The societies have described the collective call for an investigation from former NUS presidents, MPs and the UJS as “a blatant interference with the NUS’ democratic and internal processes.”

They also questioned the IHRA definition of antisemitism (which the allegations are based on), saying it “conflates Zionism with Judaism, and purposefully, suppresses any condemnation of Israeli Apartheid or an ability for Palestinians to even speak on their own experiences without being falsely labelled as racist.”

In response, a spokesperson for the NUS said at the time: “There can be no place for antisemitism within the student movement. We are listening to the concerns being raised and we’re very concerned about the pain and hurt being expressed.

“We will take any and all actions that are needed to remedy any wrongdoing and rebuild trust with Jewish students as well as our Members, partners and stakeholders.”

Addressing the education select committee in April, education minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “I am deeply concerned about the NUS. It feels to me that there is systemic antisemitism because this is not the first time, it’s the second time they’ve elected a leader who’s got a history of antisemitic comments and statements.”

He said: “It’s not acceptable, in my view, that anyone in a leadership position in that organisation holds these views or propagates them in any way.

“I think they need to rebuild, regain the trust of Jewish students because at the moment that trust has collapsed completely and rightly so.”

‘We are disengaging with the NUS’

Last week, education minister Nadhim Zahawi said he was “seriously concerned” by the reports of alleged antisemitism and announced the suspension of NUS recognition. He said:  “Jewish students need to have confidence that this is a body that represents them, and we need to be sure that the student bodies that we engage with are speaking fairly for all students, which is why we are disengaging with the NUS until the issues have been addressed.

“From the NUS’s initial response to our concerns, I am confident that they are keen to take action and welcome further updates from them.”

The Department for Education said: “Although the NUS has shown a willingness to respond to concerns expressed by ministers, including beginning to kickstart a process of independent investigations, this will need to lead to substantive action.

“This decision to disengage from the NUS will be kept under review as the organisation demonstrates it has suitably addressed these issues.”

This comes after reports of university-related anti-semitic incidents returning to pre-pandemic levels – with 45 this year compared to 26 last year.

What happens next?

The impact of this disengagement isn’t clear-cut since it’s unprecedented.

But according to Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan, the NUS will be deprived of a seat on government panels and cut off from funding until “tangible action”. An independent investigation has also been ordered to look into whether the election that made Dallali the upcoming president had been properly run.

It’s unclear what this might mean for individual students’ unions associated with the NUS since they aren’t impacted by these actions targeting how the national union operates. 

Donelan said she was “disappointed it has come to this but proud to stand up for Jewish students.

“I am horrified by the thought of Jewish students feeling ostracised by an organisation which should be a voice for their community and an advocate of equality for all students.

“Whilst our door is not closed to the NUS, our message could not be simpler. We need decisive and effective action in response to these repeated allegations of antisemitic behaviour. We are glad that the NUS has started to respond and are ready to work with them again when sufficient action has been taken,” she said.

A spokesperson for the NUS said: “We are disappointed that the universities minister has press-released that the DfE will be disengaging from the NUS, rather than seeking to engage with us directly.

“Following a complaint about antisemitism, we launched an independent investigation. We will be appointing a QC, in consultation with the Union of Jewish Students, next week. We have sought to undertake the investigation in a serious and proper way, and are working in collaboration with UJS at every step of the way.

“Once the QC has been appointed, we will be able to update on the process and timeline. We look forward to working with the government constructively on this matter.”

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