Ministers have banned official contact with the National Union of Students over long-running allegations of antisemitism within the organisation, despite the NUS’s pledge to work with Jewish students in an internal investigation.
The allegations have become a focus for the government since the election of Shaima Dallali as the next NUS president, with groups including the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) raising concerns after alleged historic comments resurfaced.
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, announced the suspension of NUS recognition, saying he was “seriously concerned” by the reports of alleged antisemitism.
“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,” Zahawi said.
“From the NUS’s initial response to our concerns, I am confident that they are keen to take action and welcome further updates from them.”
Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education in England, announced that she had written to the electoral body that oversaw this year’s NUS presidential election, asking for information on how the election was carried out.
The NUS represents seven million students at universities and colleges, with 600 student unions affiliated. The suspension only affects its relations with the government in Westminster and not those in other nations.
Matt Western, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said it was important that Jewish students felt safe and able to participate in student organisations. “It is important that the NUS is listening, and I hope that the independent inquiry they have rightly set up resolves these issues to the satisfaction of all concerned,” he said.
The Department for Education (DfE) said: “Although the NUS has shown a willingness to respond to concerns expressed by ministers, including beginning to kickstart a process of independent investigations, this will need to lead to substantive action.
“This decision to disengage from the NUS will be kept under review as the organization demonstrates it has suitably addressed these issues.”
A spokesperson for the NUS said: “We are disappointed that the universities minister has press-released that the DfE will be disengaging from the NUS, rather than seeking to engage with us directly.
“Following a complaint about antisemitism, we launched an independent investigation. We will be appointing a QC, in consultation with the Union of Jewish Students, next week. We have sought to undertake the investigation in a serious and proper way, and are working in collaboration with UJS at every step of the way.
“Once the QC has been appointed, we will be able to update on the process and timeline. We look forward to working with the government constructively on this matter.”
The DfE said that during the suspension, the NUS will be removed from all government groups and replaced with alternative student representatives. The department is asking arm’s-length bodies, including the Office for Students, the higher education regulator, to take similar action.
After Dallali’s election earlier this year, the UJS objected to comments she is alleged to have made, including a tweet posted 10 years ago that read: “Khaybar Khaybar O Jews … Muhammad’s army will return Gaza”, referring to an AD628 assault on Jews.
Dallali – who is president of the City, University of London students’ union – has apologized for the tweet, saying she is not the same person she was then.
In an interview with the Guardian, Dallali, 27, revealed that since her election she had received a lot of Islamophobic and racist abuse online. “Unfortunately, as a black Muslim woman, it is something that I expected, because I’ve seen it happen to other black Muslim women,” she said.