The government and its education arms-length bodies have officially cut ties with the National Union of Students – but FE Week has found the decision is unlikely to make much difference as engagement on FE issues is already minimal.
Last week, minister for HE and FE Michelle Donelan (pictured) suspended all engagement with the NUS following antisemitism allegations – meaning the union will no longer be able to attend Department for Education policy groups and will be replaced with alternative student representation.
The DfE also requested that its arms-length bodies, such as the Office for Students, follow its lead and suspend their engagement with the NUS.
However, a DfE spokesperson confirmed to FE Week there are actually no routine, long-standing engagements with the NUS in relation to FE at the department and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
This is despite the majority of student unions in the NUS’s membership being in FE providers ̶ around 64 per cent, according to the NUS.
Minimal engagement with arms-length bodies
The NUS will also be prevented from attending groups on FE with arms-length bodies – but their overall engagement with these affiliated organisations is already minimal, FE Week has learned.
“As per the request from the Department of Education, we will temporarily disengage with the NUS,” a spokesperson from the Student Loans Company said.
The spokesperson said the main stakeholder event the NUS is invited to at SLC in relation to FE is their advanced learner loans forum, which the union will no longer be able to attend to represent students.
The spokesperson added that the NUS is invited on a range of other forums across the organisation but did not specify how relevant these forums were to FE.
The Office for Students, which regulates higher education, told FE Week they have historically engaged with the NUS through information sharing meetings and involving them in policy-focused committees.
“We will cease to involve the NUS in our formal policy development. Informal information-sharing meetings between the NUS and the OfS may continue, including to discuss progress in their investigation of antisemitism within the NUS.”
However, other arms-length bodies told FE Week they had limited or no engagement with the NUS.
A spokesperson for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education said: “We support the position of the Department for Education. We will continue to focus IfATE’s learner engagement through our panel of apprentices.”
IfATE said it will conduct a “fuller review” but that they did not believe they worked with the NUS at all in a formal capacity.
A spokesperson from Ofqual told FE Week it will also stop engagement with the NUS, but could not say what specific engagement is being cut in relation to further education.
Ofsted also told FE Week the watchdog does not have regular contact with the NUS.
The DfE also announced that the NUS will not receive any government funding. But a spokesperson confirmed the NUS does not currently receive any money from the DfE – and that this comment related to future funding opportunities.
Allegations of antisemitism
The government said that the allegations of antisemitism at the NUS, which have been “well-documented and span several years”, have prompted a feeling of insecurity amongst Jewish students across the country.
These include concerns about the invitation of the rapper, Lowkey, who has been accused of making antisemitic comments, to the 2022 NUS conference.
It was alleged that current NUS president Larissa Kennedy suggested that Jewish students segregate themselves into a quiet area designed for neuro-divergent students during his appearance, which was “utterly unacceptable”, the DfE said.
The DfE was also “deeply concerned” about social media comments made by the president elect, Shaima Dallali, which have included a tweet in support of Hamas.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “I am seriously concerned to hear of so many reports of alleged antisemitism linked to the NUS.
“Jewish students need to have confidence that this is a body that represents them, and we need to be sure that the student bodies that we engage with are speaking fairly for all students, which is why we are disengaging with the NUS until the issues have been addressed.”
The department said it is working closely with the Union of Jewish Students and other Jewish groups to ensure there is a consensus that the NUS is fully able to represent all students, including Jewish students.
“When this happens we will consider re-engaging with the union,” the DfE added.
An NUS spokesperson said the union was “disappointed” that Donelan announced the decision in a statement to the press rather than “seeking to engage with us directly”.
An independent investigation into the antisemitism allegations is currently ongoing.