The 'Students Not Suspects' campaign is one example of NUS efforts to protect BME students Malia for NUS President campaign

Do you know what the Prevent Duty is? It is shocking how many students, whose dying breath will be “free speech for all” are unaware of the governmental policy that is advocating increased surveillance of students as a means of controlling ‘terrorism’. Of course, the implementation of this policy disproportionally targets Muslim students because the way we think about terrorism in this country is violently racialised and steeped in Islamophobia.

Although the government claim that the policy combats "all forms of extremism", the Prevent Duty gives administrations the power to single out specific groups of students. That means that right now some colleges are keeping records of ‘diversity rates’ in order to assess their risk of terrorism. Students are being made to declare speakers for events in advance so that they can be vetted by the University and ‘deemed appropriate’ before such events can take place. Across the country, events are being stopped by administrations taking justification from this new law. What does this have to do with NUS, you ask?

The NUS actively opposed the policy, alongside the NUT (National Union of Teachers), recognising how dangerous it is for students trying to access higher education and how it creates a culture of fear and suspicion. Last year, postgraduate student Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the Terrorism, Crime and Global Security Master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was “questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaeda” because he was spotted reading a book about terrorism in the college library.

The NUS is circulating resources to help student activists understand the ways in which they can get around the policy as well as helping to mobilise anti-Prevent task forces across the country. Last year, it held conferences in London, Birmingham, Swansea, Manchester and Glasgow entitled ‘Students Not Suspects’, in which motions of non-compliance were drafted and circulated.

This is just some of the work they have been doing over the past year. Alongside this, the NUS Black Students’ Campaign are running an on-going campaign to decolonise education, supporting students who want to change the curriculum. The Women’s Campaign has fought and abolished the tampon tax and the Vice President for Higher Education has run workshops explaining the perils of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the continued marketisation of education.

The claim that the NUS is merely an ‘echo chamber for the left’ is simplistic and unfounded. It has a fundamental role in supporting and working to keep safe the most marginalised students. This is a principle which most students support and agree with. It is by no means a perfect organisation but it is important to recognise that there are a number of aspects of it that marginalised students cannot afford to lose: the resources and guidance that the NUS provide mean that we are in a better position to form links with other campaigns across the country.

Attending the Women’s Conference this year, for example, enabled me to meet other activists who are working on the place of women in academia, making spaces more accessible for disabled women, and supporting queer women students across the country. NUS enables us to compare campaign methods and materials and work towards planning joint events in the future.

Even if you don’t care about student politics and think the above does not concern you, the best way to make our national students’ union better is to stay, vocalise our critique and ensure that creeping anti-Semitism is not normalised. The structural shifts that need to happen to ensure that anti-Semitism does not become a feature of student movements will not happen if we shy away from engagement. Ultimately, it is the job of allies, for whom the emotional cost is much lower, to fight against it. The alternative to the NUS is a lack of stability and will compromise our ability to find national answers to national questions.

If we isolate ourselves, we might make a statement in the short term, but in the long term we lose the benefit of being supported by an organisation which first and foremost is concerned with protecting the rights of students but also assessing the way government policies affect them.

The NUS is not a single person. To reduce its work to singular statements made by an individual does a great disservice to the many student activists involved in the organisation. This erases the fact that there are many within it who didn’t vote for Malia, who disagree with her use of language but are fundamentally committed to what the organisation stands for and don’t think her election compromises this. It erases the many Jewish students who might be irked by seeing anti-Semitism co-opted by many to carry out personal vendettas against the NUS because they do not like the way it operates.

We also have to take into account the fact that the way in which the media presented Malia's comments and actions was racialised. When the first Muslim NUS President is presented as an “ISIS sympathiser” (a claim which is clearly untrue if researched) there are obvious associations that media outlets would like us to make. That is not to say that she is a figure beyond critique, it is merely to suggest that the media’s presentation of the issue and of NUS as a whole is not unproblematic. This obviously creates a metanarrative and weaponises the idea that it does not ‘represent all students’ as if such a thing were humanely possibly. The media is sadly the place where most students will get their information from, instead of looking into the complexity of the decision they are being asked to make.

When the safety of marginalised students is being threatened, this is not the time for disengagement. Although re-affiliation is possible, what is important about being asked to make this decision now is that the government policies discussed above are already taking place. The resources we stand to lose are too precious to gamble at this moment. It is true that the NUS may not ‘represent’ you as an individual but it fights for your right to have education free from marketisation. It supports the welfare officers at your student union, it liaises with or works against the government on your behalf, and it is better to at least stay and remain critical than shut ourselves out of the conversation entirely.

Lola Olufemi is speaking on behalf of FLY, a network and forum for women of colour in Cambridge. To find out more about their work, and the ideas behind this piece, visit

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