A muted cheer and applause could be heard when chief returning officer Honor Cohen urged delegates to check the national headlines, in reference to the news that Baroness Thatcher had died, age 87, following a stroke.
Delegates and others took to social networking site Twitter to criticise the reaction, which most deemed to be insensitive an inappropriate.
Jamie Williams (@JODWilliams1990), a physics student at Manchester University, summed up many of the responses when he tweeted: “I refuse to be a member of the NUS as they’ve cheered Lady Thatcher’s death. I will be ending my membership…next week.”
David Morris (dgmorris295), Durham Students’ Union academic affairs officer-elect, added: “To clarify, a very very small number of NUS delegates made a cheer about Thatcher. I think most don’t yet know.”
Mr Burns, who had already concluded his introductory address to the conference, returned to the floor, saying he had to respond to reporting of the incident on Twitter.
“Now, let me be clear, I’m the last person to agree with Margaret Thatcher’s politics or her policy record as prime minister,” he said. “But we must not forget that an elderly woman has just died. She had family, friends, colleagues and supporters who will want to pay their respects at this time, and the media and public debate will now be dominated by this unexpected news.
“It’s not just that this would reflect extremely badly upon us if we were to show disrespect at this time. We are better than that. We believe there is such thing as humanity. There is such a thing as sensitivity. And there is such a thing as respect. I ask you all to think very carefully indeed about how you respond to this news as conference continues.”