On first meeting new NUS Vice President Amatey Doku, it is clear that he is charismatic, highly intelligent, and determined.
Having spent only one year in student politics as President of Cambridge University Students’ Union, Amatey was elected NUS Vice President for Higher Education at this year’s NUS National Conference – his first ever NUS conference. With apparent ease and self confidence, Amatey is eager to set out his stall on the style and approach he plans taking as the voice of higher education students next year.
Hailing from Beckenham in south east London, Amatey comes from a family background deeply rooted in academia, though very distinct from the ‘typical’ Oxbridge entrant. His grandfather started out as a lecturer, and now is an Emeritus professor at the University of Ghana in Accra. Growing up on a campus, his father then went to complete his studies in the UK, studying medicine and specialising in psychiatry.
Meanwhile, his mother followed an alternative route – going straight to nursing college, becoming a midwife, and only four years ago enrolling at the University of Greenwich to study Public Health. Amatey recalls a joke she made that they’d graduate at the same time. His family’s academic background meant he has always had high expectations set by his parents, and it was after taking his GCSEs that he began to think of applying for Cambridge or Oxford.
One of the most prominent recent challenges with student politics has been how to reconcile traditional identity politics with class identity. As a black graduate from Cambridge, Amatey exemplifies the conflict that can arise. Class conscious left-wing students, and particularly those not from the Russell Group, have often lamented having Oxbridge and Russell Group leaders dominating NUS. Yet Amatey’s success in both receiving a place at the University of Cambridge, graduating, and then becoming the second black President of Cambridge Students’ Union, means he is uniquely placed as someone who has borne the challenges of racism and still thrived.
Amatey describes the Cambridge experience as “very, very strange for most people. Everyone has a sense that they don’t deserve to be here.” But he found his experience enjoyable, and the freedom that his course gave him was unique. While the overall number of black students admitted to Cambridge is low, Amatey argues that this is exacerbated by the collegiate system, where it is not inconceivable that you could be the only black student in your college. I ask him about the recent Cambridge Afro-Caribbean Society viral photo campaign – he says it was surprising how far it has gone.
Tackling the attainment gap
Having undertaken his dissertation on institutional racism at Oxford and Cambridge, the sector should be ready for an NUS Vice President who is ready to tackle the issue head on. We briefly discuss the Russell Group’s attitude towards low numbers of BME students gaining entry. It is evident that Amatey is prepared to challenge the sector’s usual argument that blames low attainment at school or sixth form level, which he considers an excuse. “You can’t absolve responsibility because you are involved in setting the requirements for entry. Students are already discriminated against in the system, so you are complicit in the reproduction of inequalities”, he says. He is surprised that Cambridge has entered into ECU’s Race Equality Charter mark, noting the challenges of putting together a coherent strategy within the University’s devolved college admissions system.
But rather than using his position to protest, Amatey demonstrates a tangible and thoughtful approach to securing a real change in challenging the barriers for BME students, outlining it as a key priority to get started on as soon as possible. He hopes to collaborate with ECU to develop a joint strategy around the challenge, believing that it is through engaging students’ unions that both NUS and ECU can make the greatest impact. Students’ unions, he anticipates, have the potential to put pressure on their institutions to participate in the Race Equality Charter, and commit themselves to tackling the attainment gap.
Of course, identity politics has manifested itself in a different way, with media coverage frequently criticising NUS and students’ unions for the supposed suppression of free speech. It comes as no surprise that Amatey is sceptical of the media’s intent in exploiting isolated cases to represent the sector as a whole, arguing that there is a “sinister element to it”. He argues that there is a clear distinction between the right to speak and the right to be invited to speak.
Just a phone call away
Amatey is determined to strike a new approach for NUS when it comes to engagement with the higher education sector. He tells me he “wants to be able to have the confidence of people within the sector that I’m a phone call away, and we can have a dialogue about something… I think our power is in making sure that we have the ears of all the key players in the sector.”
NUS has been reticent to formally engage with some recent policy developments, such as TEF, on the basis of being seen to tacitly consent or legitimise initiatives which it opposes. Amatey tells me that engagement means letting the sector and government know both what you agree and disagree with, and why. He cites the parallel of several students’ unions strong, co-operative relationships with their universities, and is determined to re-emulate that model whilst continuing to robustly criticise TEF and other policies opposed by NUS.
NUS has been furiously critical of the TEF, particularly its link to raising tuition fees. “It needs a lot of work… I think there’s a general view that it doesn’t really accurately measure teaching excellence”, Amatey tells me.
It’s not that he disagrees that good teaching needs to be recognised, but like many in the sector, Amatey is doubtful over whether TEF is the right way to achieve it. He suggests alternatives such as using teaching awards as an opportunity to contribute positively, and establishing a way to assess how institutions assess themselves. He is highly critical of ranking universities, and stresses that contribution that a diversity of higher education institutions offer, whether that be levels of expertise, being in a certain part of the country, or specialising in a particular area.
Improving universities’ accountability to students is Amatey’s answer to the problem that Jo Johnson purportedly wants to solve. He notes the lack of student involvement in many universities’ TEF submissions, emphasising the important role of regulating the methods of self assessment, rather than simply the outputs of teaching.
Amatey’s measured and deliberate approach, and clear willingness to work in partnership with the sector, means it’s going to be an exciting year (or two) ahead. Sector leaders should start booking in those phone calls and coffee meetings now.
You can watch Amatey Doku’s election speech from April’s NUS Conference here.