Here’s what went down at the NUS disaffiliation debate

Eduroam timed out during the debate so, for the seven of you watching on the livestream, and for the rest of you who were probably revising, this is what went down:

adam crafton cambridge student politics CUSU cusu nus debate jack lewy jewish liberation Malia Bouattia NUS NUS referendum referendum student politics

Today, CUSU held an open debate about their affiliation with NUS. This is what happened:

Four speakers spoke in favour of disaffiliation, and four in favour of remaining. Peterhouse classics fresher Lottie McNally opened proceedings by arguing that NUS serves as a mechanism for the advancement of student politicians and, as an institution, is unrepresentative of wider student opinion. She challenged the NUS approach to “identity politics” which she said “is pretty trendy right now”, and suggested that NUS breeds an environment of “meaningless protest” and the in-fighting of liberation movements.

CUSU President Priscilla Mensah followed with a passionate speech. After describing a letter she had drafted to NUS explaining the discontent of Jewish students in light of recent events, she called for CUSU to stay on the grounds that we can help to reform the organisation and improve its structure.

Priscilla listed some of the work that NUS has done to help the Cambridge community, providing the example of the BME attainment gap. She pushed for reform instead of outright disaffiliation in light of these positives, claiming “If you think CUSU is shit, remain, if you think NUS is shit, remain!”

Adam Crafton was up next. He described the upset that Malia Bouattia’s election had caused to the student Jewish community, arguing too that these problems did not end at Ms. Bouattia. He questioned how the NUS can be taken seriously as an institution when a host of parliamentary officials have denounced their leadership, and claimed that the removal of Jewish representation on ARAF, the NUS anti-racism committee, was startling.

Guest speaker Richard Brooks, NUS Vice-President, followed. He described the three roles of NUS: Campaigning and lobbying, the developing of support networks and the growth of student unions, and the job of making money for student unions. He claimed that he agreed that Malia Bouattia’s comments were wrong, and he hopes, echoing earlier comments made by Priscilla, that CUSU will remain so that institutional reform can be achieved.

Moving the discussion forward, Trinity fresher Shani Wijetilaka reinforced Lotty McNally’s earlier comments to suggest that NUS has been hijacked by “the student far left”. She claimed that the way to restore faith in student politics is to bring it back to Cambridge students who know what concerns them best.

Rebutting Priscilla and Richard’s comments about institutional reform, Shani claimed that “the issues with the NUS run so deep that it is just not possible to reform effectively from within”, and disaffiliation was as a result the only method of sending a clear message through. She discussed an open letter published today by NUS that did not mention anti semitism, to suggest that “they want to brush it under the carpet”.

Lola Olufemi rebutted that claim directly in her speech, in arguing that the reduction of NUS as an institution to one individual represents a huge disservice. She continued to comment on the “appalling” media representation of both NUS and Ms Bouattia. Supplementing this with a discussion about the value of NUS, Lola argued that NUS has trained our women’s officer, BME officer, and will train our disabled students’ officer. She ended by expressing her opinion that disaffiliation sends the message that “when things get harder we disengage because it’s easier”.

In a round of questions from the floor a discussion emerged about the financial benefits of NUS membership for individual students. Priscilla responded by claiming CUSU would never make the argument for staying in NUS based on financial benefits. She considered the debate that some have brought up that aims to weigh up the harms of anti-semitism against the benefits of a revenue stream, and suggested that there can never be any suggestion that these can be weighed up against one another. She reiterated, however, the case for internal NUS reform.

Cambridge is deciding.

Gabriel Gendler was the final speaker in favour of disaffiliation – he gave a very passionate speech citing his personal experience as a former President of the university’s Jewish society. Gabriel argued that in the same way we would no-platform racist organisations, he wants to boycott NUS. Commenting that Jewish students do not have a liberation campaign, he asked “where were our allies when Malia Bouattia was elected?” He suggested the presence of a systemic anti-semitism problem within NUS, saying “if we continue to stand behind a organisation that is anti-semitic, when the organisation is filled with misogynists and racists, we will be expected to stand behind them too”.  

Angus Satow, former CUSU Presidential candidate, spoke last. Describing student fees, Angus continued the night’s theme of saying the word “shit” for dramatic effect and said: “we wouldn’t have achieved shit without the National Union of Students”. He went into some detail about some of the work NUS has achieved, considering examples of campaigns that NUS has contributed to: against restricting freedom of information, loans for postgraduate students, and helping the divestment campaign.

He ended by claiming that disaffiliation did not offer students a positive vision, and that “by dividing ourselves into smaller groups we cannot fight against racism”. He rebutted earlier points by Shani and Lotty about the nature of “unrepresentative student politics”, saying that speaking out against the BME attainment gap and the government’s prevent policy are “not radical”.

And that’s all folks.