A number of delegates who attended the annual conference of the National Union of Students have complained of an “atmosphere of intimidation” at the event.
An open letter signed by 43 attendees of last month’s conference claims that many students “felt too scared to speak on stage out of fear of the response they would get”.
There was an “atmosphere of intimidation, fear and inaccessibility that perpetuated during the entirety of conference”, the letter says.
“There seemed to be a general lack of tolerance for opinions which aren’t the mainstream view,” the letter adds. “We frequently saw the same faces speaking on stage, time after time, creating an atmosphere that this was a conference for the few, not the many.”
The letter also complains about time being wasted during conference sessions, with the result that many key policy motions were not debated but instead were sent on to the national executive council for deliberation.
A particular concern raised is the use of the chair’s visual assessment of the audience to count votes, which the letter says was often open to challenge and sometimes resulted in time-consuming manual counts being carried out.
More accurate methods such as electronic voting need to be adopted “as a matter of urgency” to save time and to eliminate “accusations of bias”, the letter says.
The letter, signed by 16 students’ union presidents, concludes: “This year’s event made a mockery of the student movement and served to weaken and divide it, rather than bringing us together.”
Toni Pearce, the outgoing NUS president, told Times Higher Education that she was “disappointed” to hear that some delegates had not felt that the conference had lived up to the union’s values, and said she was “grateful” to delegates for raising their concerns.
“We have always encouraged delegates to feed back on our events and share their experiences so that we can make changes based on evidence to improve the experience of delegates at our events, and this year’s national conference will be evaluated in detail,” Ms Pearce said.