Cambridge JSoc's Hannah Haskel shares her experiences of attending the NUS Conference 2023.
I was certainly apprehensive about attending this year’s National Union of Students Conference, due to the lack of information about it online, and the recent Tuck report’s finding that the organisation has been a ‘hostile environment’ for Jewish students. However, upon arriving at Harrogate’s Conference Centre, I was immediately reassured not only to see the familiar faces of the UJS Sabs, but more importantly, the large quantity of Kosher bagels they had brought with them from Northwest London.
To provide some background, the NUS is essentially an SU for the entirety of students in the UK. The organisation is tasked with lobbying the government on behalf of the student population and supporting Student Unions on university campuses. It is led by a number of Sabbatical Officers, who are elected every two years, and are (supposed to be) held to account by two different committees.
Every year, each university and further education institution send a handful of students to the NUS conference, to decide on the student community’s priorities and NUS policies for the year ahead. These students, or delegates, are usually selected via an election run by their SU, and voted upon by students from their institution. I campaigned last December, primarily on a platform of countering antisemitism within the NUS, and was elected to represent my university, along with 5 fellow students.
Standing for election felt like a pretty distant memory by the time I arrived at the conference, months later in March. At a welcome session for Jewish students prior to the start of the conference, NUS staff promised that they would not shy away from the recent report into antisemitism within the organisation. Encouragingly, this was a commitment which they certainly honoured. During the Opening Ceremony, Sabbatical Officers acknowledged the harm caused to Jewish students and pledged to implement the action plan produced following the release of the Tuck Report.
The majority of the conference was spent in smaller groups, discussing ideas about how to approach the cost-of-living crisis, education, housing, international students and democracy and accountability within the NUS. Each group produced a list of policy ideas and goals which they wanted the NUS to work towards, and these were debated (and subsequently voted upon) on the last afternoon of the conference. It was brilliant to come together with students from all across the country to discuss our different ideas and experiences. The discussions were friendly and importantly, I felt that I learnt a lot from delegates in my group, which I could bring back to my own university’s student union.
My personal highlight of this year’s NUS conference was contributing to UJS’s panel discussion session, on antisemitism in student politics and what good allyship looks like. This was a brilliant opportunity to engage in completely open and candid discussions with non-Jewish delegates. I strongly believe that conversations such as these are absolutely crucial in breaking down hesitations and misconceptions about allyship towards Jewish students. It was really encouraging to see that non-Jewish delegates were taking an active interest in supporting Jewish students within NUS spaces and beyond and the session ended on a really positive note. In a similar vein, it was brilliant to see a number of Jewish delegates elected to various NUS committees for the year ahead. I also feel obliged to mention the incredible success of the UJS ‘fringe event’, at the local Wetherspoons, which attracted eighty delegates.
Reflecting on my trip, I enjoyed meeting such a varied group of people and being a part of interesting discussions on the most prevalent issues facing students today. Whilst there is certainly a long road ahead, to eradicating antisemitism within the NUS, I came away from the conference feeling optimistic about the future. It seems to me that, thanks to the tireless efforts of UJS and of many previous Jewish delegates, we’ve reached a window of opportunity, in which to affect positive change within the organisation. Therefore, it was extremely important that Jewish students, such as myself, felt comfortable to attend, and to have our voices heard. The kosher bagels were certainly an added bonus too.