Voting has now opened in Exeter’s much-anticipated NUS referendum – meaning students have until 13 May to decide whether the Guild leaves the National Union of Students.
But from Guild President Laura-Jane Tiley’s defence of NUS restrictions on Yik Yak to doubts about new NUS President Malia Bouattia, recent weeks have already seen heavy student debate on the National Union.
Before voting had even begun, the ballot was earning national attention – with the Daily Mail labelling it a “Student revolt over militant new union boss.” Yet Exeter’s second NUS referendum in 18 months was actually planned well before the election of controversial new president Malia Bouattia on April 20.
Back in November 2014, Exeter’s leave campaign failed to gather the support needed for disaffiliation, with 78 per cent of voters choosing to stick with the NUS. But in February’s Sabb elections, candidate Paul Rota proposed a second referendum – and as part of the Guild’s new ‘Reward and Recognition’ scheme (which allowed unsuccessful candidates to launch a manifesto point for every 450 votes received) a re-vote was set for May.
Since then, students have rallied on both sides of the vote (see Comment). Anti-NUS group “Exiter” began the campaign trail in early March, launching a Facebook page which has amassed over 170 likes. Meanwhile, the “Stay With NUS” campaign launched on Facebook and WordPress on 29 April, led by Guild President Laura-Jane Tiley.
However, the NUS vote isn’t the only topic Tiley has taken to social media to address students on in recent weeks.
In the wake of April’s annual NUS National Conference in Brighton – to which Tiley led the Exeter delegation – rumours of a so-called “YikYak ban” sparked student outrage. But Motion 303 is nothing of the sort, Tiley stresses on the Guild website, in a post shared on Twitter and Facebook. Instead, the motion calls for the NUS to “open a dialog with Facebook, Twitter, and YikYak to introduce restrictions on ‘anonymous’ or troll accounts during election periods.”
Tiley voted in favour, along with VP Education Bethan Jones and VP Activities Katie O’Connor – and the motion was passed by NUS on 19 April.
As campaigns intensify, Exeter students also remain divided on the newly-elected NUS President: current Black Students’ Officer Malia Bouattia.
Bouattia was elected at the Union’s conference on 20 April – but the following day, an anonymous Exeter student launched a motion on the Guild’s Student Ideas forum. “The Guild should release a Statement of No Confidence in Malia Bouattia as NUS President,” the student stated – claiming among other things that the new president “called a motion condemning ISIS Islamophobic” and didn’t properly respond to concerns she had identified Birmingham’s Jewish society as “a problem.” “Ms. Bouattia is not fit to hold the office of National President,” they concluded, calling on the Guild to release a statement confirming this.
The demand has polarised student opinion – with 41 per cent strongly agreeing and 40 per cent strongly disagreeing at time of print.
On 25 April, Exeter Change and Represent announced that the Idea had been corrected in response to complaints it was factually inaccurate.
The update confirmed that Bouattia had proposed a counter-extremism motion at December’s conference – and that she responded to antisemitism claims in both the Guardian and The Times. “They’ve had to correct virtually all of it because of its factual inaccuracy,” Amani Saeed told Exeposé. “On those grounds alone, this motion is ridiculous.”
Saeed was one of those who originally condemned the idea. “Being a Muslim myself, the biggest point I had a problem with was that Malia refused to condemn ISIS,” she explained. “This wouldn’t have been the FIRST point on their agenda if she weren’t a Muslim […] It’s as if she is an ISIS sympathizer until proven otherwise because she is a Muslim.”
Hayden Cooper also slammed the motion. Labelling the claims “reactionary and crass,” he claimed the Idea “plays into the Islamophobic scaremongering pushed by the media.”
“No one had a problem with Malia before she became President,” he added, “and to be quite honest no one was outspoken about antisemitism on the left until she got elected. People are making a mockery of real and legitimate issues just to attack someone they have disagreements with.”
Guild President Tiley said she welcomed “the strong debate on campus sparked by the NUS referendum.” “Malia Bouattia has been democratically elected to NUS President, she explained, “but students’ reactions to this show just how important it is for students to get involved with representation at a local level to ensure they can be effectively represented on the national stage.”
Regardless of students’ views on Bouattia and Motion 303, the referendum calls for one decision: should the Guild disaffiliate from the NUS?
At least 900 students will need to vote for a decision to be reached. The vote is open to students only, and based on a simple majority – so if the results swings either way by 50 per cent plus one, Exeter will definitively leave or stay in the NUS.