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New leaders, new approach: a watershed moment for NUS

Shakira Martin and Amatey Doku are the new faces of NUS for the higher education. Nona Buckley-Irvine explains what this means for the sector's engagement with NUS and students' unions.
This article is more than 7 years old

Nona worked as a Policy Assistant at Wonkhe.

Highly energised student activists headed to Brighton this week for NUS National Conference, to settle the score in a profoundly divided national union.

Those in the sector will be no stranger to the negative and controversial publicity NUS has had over the past year. Allegations of anti-Semitism, the NSS boycott, and a frequent spotlight on ‘safe spaces’ and ‘campus censorship’ have obscured much of the organisation’s continued engagement in sector policy and students’ unions work on campuses around the country.

After the ascendancy of the hard left at last year’s conference, it is the more moderate unions that appeared to be resurgent at this year’s event.

Malia out, Shakira in

Incumbent President Malia Bouattia, known for her hard left identity politics, has been voted out of office. It was a stunning victory for Shakira Martin – currently Vice President for Further Education. It has not been an easy year for Bouattia, who herself ousted incumbent Megan Dunn last year. Bouattia has repeatedly been featured in the press for her history of anti-Semitic remarks and has focussed her campaigns on the “liberation” of education, including decolonising the curriculum and an end to tuition fees.

In comes Martin, now only the second NUS President not from a higher education background, having attended Lewisham Southwark College and elected as Vice President for Further Education originally as a candidate of the left. On paper the two candidates appeared to have fewer differences than similarities – Martin was a supporter of Bouattia only last year. She has made a series of high-profile interventions in criticising the approach of NUS to allegations of anti-Semitism, and also criticised NUS for being “more interested in infighting and factions than fighting fees”.

Martin, who will now take over from Bouattia in August, will be able to speak more candidly than most in the sector about educational disadvantage. She is a mother to two children; she is open about her background in drug dealing at the age of 16 and later suffering an abusive relationship. Martin is a keen advocate of the transformative impact of education, particularly in the FE sector. Her term as Vice President has seen the FE area reviews, continued threats to the sector’s funding, and new plans for extensive qualification reform. Martin has become surprisingly chummy with Vince Cable, with whom she is working on a project to raise the public profile of further education.

Martin’s will undoubtedly focus on rebuilding NUS’s public reputation and connecting with Jewish and moderate students who might feel alienated from it. Her manifesto lists setting up a student poverty commission as her number one priority.

Perhaps the most significant change will be with Martin’s style and approach. NUS has had a tendency in recent years to opt for protest as a method of influencing. Though not afraid to lead a demonstration herself, Martin’s manifesto is more based on constructive engagement and evidence-based policy making.

However, her heart will – naturally, and perhaps necessarily – lean towards raising the profile of NUS’s work in further education; over half of NUS’s members are further education students. The role of Vice President for Higher Education will, therefore, be more important than usual.

Meet Amatey Doku

Amatey Doku, the current President of Cambridge University Students’ Union, will take over from incumbent Sorana Vieru, who completes her two-year term. Doku graduated from Cambridge with a BA in Human, Social and Political Sciences, specialising in Sociology – and his dissertation focussed on institutional racism at Cambridge and Oxford.

Doku’s approach looks to be pragmatic and policy focussed – his manifesto states that he is in favour of free education, but does not see it becoming a reality any time soon. Doku’s goals including a campaign over student loan flexibility, ensuring students have access to full-time advisers in students’ unions and creating a national campaigns hub. He also promises to publish an NUS white paper on students demands for post-Brexit Britain and create a national commission on the BME attainment gap.  

Policy ambiguity

NUS officers are often subject to follow the policies mandated to them by National Conference. Delegates have voted to reaffirm NUS’s commitment to ‘free education’, now a longstanding and increasingly well-established policy.

However, debates over the future of the NSS boycott campaign and another national demonstration in the autumn were not heard. A move to send these issues to the union’s National Executive Council was effectively struck down, a victory for more moderate unions that have not supported the boycott campaign this year. However, some unions may continue to build on their successes in this year’s NSS boycott campaign into the next year. 

The conference also voted to reform the democracy of NUS, with some sweeping changes made. NUS UK will now hold regional conferences which would allow England, in addition to the other devolved Nations – to develop region-specific policy, as well as England-specific policy. The National Society of Apprentices will also be brought into the membership of the NUS. Post-conference ballots will also be used to prioritise policies passed at the conference – a useful step to condensing the churn of policy that conference has a tendency to produce, often leaving the union spreading its resources too thinly to be effective.  

What next

Don’t underestimate the importance of the change in direction from the top. The newly elected leadership will have to wait until July before taking office. With a significant ideological shift from the hard left to more moderate candidates, sector bodies and universities will prepare themselves for a rethink in how to approach NUS going forward.

The new leadership, like Bouattia before them, has stated an intention to focus on access and racial equality in the sector. There could be an exciting challenge ahead for the sector to well and truly get to grips with the BME attainment gap and other racial injustices that persist in higher education.

While it seems unlikely that the NSS boycott will continue next year, the priority motion for higher education includes an action to campaign against the introduction of an NSS for postgraduates, and to develop a “manifesto for teaching excellence” as an alternative to TEF.

As ever with an organisation as complex and volatile as NUS, the year ahead is unpredictable.

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