Louis Ashworth

The big news from the marathon CUSU council on Monday 2nd May was that, for a second time this year, Cambridge students would given the chance to have their say in a referendum. On Friday, CUSU confirmed the question students will be asked: “Should CUSU disaffiliate from the National Union of Students?”

As the day of reckoning for Cambridge’s ties with NUS approaches, Varsity makes sense of what’s going on and what is to come, and also invites students to take part in our NUS referendum survey.


The preparations for the referendum, which will take place at the end of this month, are already underway, with CUSU corralling campaigners into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps; expect dedicated campaign Facebook events for each to be launched in due course.

The key dates on the road ahead are as follows:

The Electoral Roll for the referendum will be available to check from noon on Tuesday 10th May, students having until noon on Monday 23rd May to check whether they will be able to cast a vote and to contact CUSU if they believe they’ve been wrongfully omitted.

Campaigners for both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have until Thursday 12th May to submit any arguments they want to appear on CUSU promotional materials. Posters will then be sent out to colleges on Monday 16th May.

In what promises to be another exciting, and potentially wearying, evening at CUSU HQ, there will be a debate on the referendum held at 7pm on Tuesday 17th May.

Finally, voting will open at 9am on Tuesday 24th May, remaining open until 4pm on Friday 27th May, with a result expected to be published shortly afterwards.

The debate so far:

The arguments that have been made by both sides thus far boil down to two broad questions:  whether the election of Malia Bouattia represents a change of direction for NUS, and whether that is a direction Cambridge students want to be affiliated with; and the question of what Cambridge students gain as a result of CUSU’s NUS membership (and therefore, what they will lose in the event of disaffiliation).

How does Malia Bouattia represent a new direction for NUS?

Within the wider climate of debate about anti-Semitism both within the national and student left, the election of Malia Bouattia as the new NUS President ignited debate and calls for CUSU to disaffiliate from NUS.

Reservations about her candidacy and subsequent election arose as a result of comments she has made in the past, which many believed to bear anti-Semitic undertones. For instance, an article co-authored by Bouattia in 2011 referred to the University of Birmingham as “a Zionist outpost.”

Forty-seven Jewish Society Presidents signed an open letter questioning Bouattia’s previous comments, to which Bouattia responded in another open letter, highlighting her long-term commitment to tackling racism and prejudice in all their forms and stressing that her anti-Zionist stance was not inherently anti-Semitic.

Added to the discussion was NUS’s decision two years ago to halt a motion which condemned ISIS. Then serving as the NUS’s black students’ officer, Bouattia took issue with the wording of the motion, suggesting that it pandered to Islamophobic rhetoric. When it came to the vote, many of NUS’s National Executive Council members either abstained or voted against it.

However, in Bouattia’s speech against the motion contained the promise to put forward another, differently-worded motion to condemn ISIS, which quickly passed. This new motion also explicitly extended solidarity to the Kurdish people.

As further episodes and allegations continued to surface, in Cambridge, a group of students headed by Jack May formed the ‘NUS: Let Cambridge Decide’ campaign and presented the motion for the referendum to CUSU Council on Monday. They were joined by the Cambridge University Jewish Society, who voted in favour of a referendum and also backed disaffiliation.

Also taken issue with was Bouattia’s assertion of “Zionist-led media outlets”, which was accused of using “classic tropes to scaremonger about Jewish influence.”

The matter was further debated at the Cambridge Union. NUS delegates Olly Hudson and Connor MacDonald were pitted against one another, as NUS and the student left came under attack from MacDonald and Oriyan Prizant. Hudson presented the case for remaining engaged with NUS, stating that “those that want to disengage have never engaged”, alongside Magdelene JCR Vice President, Angus Satow.

The debates that followed Bouattia’s election highlight that, rather than being an issue only concerning the newly-elected President, NUS’s general political direct is under question.

Among the motions discussed at this year’s NUS Conference in Brighton was one about the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day. Many students were incensed by the two rounds of opposition speeches that the motion faced. One such speech criticised the NUS and the government for “forgetting and ignoring the [other] mass genocides” and thereby “prioritising some lives over others”, and was followed by the suggestion of a day commemorating not just the Holocaust but all mass atrocities.

This received comment not only from students, but also prominent politicians such as Eric Pickles MP, now the UK’s Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues.

“There are some within the NUS who feel the Holocaust Memorial Day should not be remembered because it is not inclusive enough”, Pickles tweeted.

However, some NUS officers who were present have maintained that these views were unpopular and not shared by the vast majority of delegates at the conference, including Bouattia herself.

The passing of a motion to remove a reserved space on the Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism NUS Committee for a Jewish representative has also alarmed Jewish students. Although Malia Bouattia did vote for this motion, some have said it indicates a streak of anti-Semitism within the NUS that runs far deeper than her presidency.

Another headline-grabbing decision was to “open a dialogue with Facebook, Twitter and Yik Yak” to try and restrict anonymous posting during NUS elections – which often sees vicious online abuse hurled at candidates. Although acknowledging the value of engaging through social media, they believed that such media provided a vehicle for “racists, sexists and cyber bullies” who could not be disciplined. The decision courted (ironically) considerable negative commentary on Twitter.

What do Cambridge students get in return for CUSU’s NUS membership?

A CUSU document, shared with CUSU council members before the dramatic Council meeting on 2nd May, sets out what are arguably the benefits of Cambridge remaining part of NUS, both for students and CUSU itself. It has fuelled arguments that Cambridge would be better served by remaining affiliated, and tackling NUS’s unsavoury elements from within.

The document states that, as CUSU only represents 22,000 students, it is “unable to effectively lobby the government on big student issues alone”. It says that NUS, which represents roughly 3,000,000 students, at over 600 institutions, gives Cambridge a “much louder voice” as well as access to research and legal advice that would otherwise be beyond CUSU’s means.

NUS, it argues, has been “at the forefront” of campaigns on issues such as “rights for international students, making postgraduate student loans a possibility, and sexual discrimination on campuses.”

Being a member of NUS also allows Cambridge students to submit motions to NUS conferences, and to run for elected positions (and then vote) at them.

For students, the most significant financial aspect is arguably the NUS Extra scheme, which gets members discounts at, among others, Spotify, Zizzi, Pizza Express, Topshop, Co-op, ASOS, and Urban Outfitters. According to estimations in the document, NUS Extra discounts are likely to have saved Cambridge students over £200,000.

NUS Extra cards are also significant because of the revenue they generate for CUSU, who made £16,642 from the sale of the cards in 2014-15. Cambridge students would no longer be able to buy the cards if CUSU were to disaffiliate.

The NUS also provides a wide range of resources and educational frameworks that some believe are invaluable to CUSU’s ability to serve its students. For instance, the Black Students’ Campaign has recently created materials to support universities’ opposition of the Prevent strategy, and each of NUS’s liberation campaigns provides specific support for sabbatical officers in CUSU as well as other universities’ student unions.

Who can do what, and where?

Voting in the referendum is open to any student who is registered on the electoral roll. Students can vote online, and there will dedicated voting areas with computers available on the 27th May.

CUSU have specified that, while non-official posters are not barred, they must be placed at least five metres away from these ballot boxes, in case an individual decides not to vote online.

It wouldn’t be a CUSU referendum without a puzzling number of rules, so there are also restrictions on campaigning using social media. Campaigners must register with CUSU, which has set up Facebook events for both sides, as well as a neutral event for the referendum. Any campaigning by the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ camps must be done through these events, with neither side allowed to set up further groups or events or to post on pre-existing pages.

Similarly, Cambridge students are also allowed to promote the campaign with their own profiles, but are similarly barred from posting in pre-existing groups, though it is unclear why this so and how CUSU will enforce it.

Other student bodies – such as JCRs and MCRs – may pledge support for either campaign, but they require a democratic mandate from their student body to do so.

These bodies can then symbolically post on social media, providing that it is made clear that it is the body that is being represented and not whichever individual posts it, and on how the motion was passed.