The upcoming conference for the National Union of Students (NUS) takes place this year in Brighton from 25 – 27 April, and will see one of Malia Bouattia, Tom Harwood and Shakira Martin elected to serve as the movement’s next president. Since Bouattia’s election last year, amidst allegations of anti-Semitism and followed by referendums at universities around the country regarding NUS disaffiliation, the organisation has experienced a high profile and, at times, extremely turbulent year, with the upcoming election set to be no less volatile.
In this exclusive, each of the candidates has spoken to Cherwell to put forward their case for students.
The NUS President plays a key role in advocating for the needs of students and setting the political agenda at a national level.
Seeking re-election, Bouattia is clear that she wants a union which is both “a lobbying body as well as a campaigning and mobilising force”. Part of a family that fled Algeria during the Civil War to come to Birmingham, Bouattia’s election last year made her the first female Muslim president of the NUS.
She previously served as the union’s Black Students’ Officer, and has been an outspoken critic of the Government’s anti-extremist Prevent strategy, arguing that it is racist and used to target and collect information on British Muslims.
Coming to the end of a year in office, Bouattia’s term has undoubtedly been marred by criticism—particularly from Jewish students for her past comments which contributed to an NUS investigation into alleged anti-Semitim. OUSU earlier this year urged Malia to apologise unequivocally for these comments, yet many feel she has not yet done enough to distance herself from them.
Tom Harwood, a student at Durham University, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the NUS, and ran a successful campaign last year to be an NUS delegate at the national conference which attracted widespread media attention.
Pledges included erecting a giant statue of Malia, and the centrepiece of Harwood’s presidential campaign is his argument that the union should not “grandstand on irrelevant geopolitical issues”.
Harwood claims that low student turnout in NUS delegate elections around the country can be directly linked to a perception that the NUS has been taken over by the far-left. Harwood has, like the other candidates, committed himself to fighting the interest rate rise on student loan repayments. As a leader of the student Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, he has argued for guarantees over pro- grammes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. Speaking exclusively to Cherwell, Harwood said: “I feel like I am best placed to convince the Government of our case. The rhetoric of other candidates in this election, saying that any borders at all are racist for example, is unlikely to help secure the best deal for students.”
Malia Bouattia, the incumbent President running for a second term, told Cherwell: “The current period, both in education and in society at large, presents all of us with real challenges. Rampant racism, the dismantling of our sector as well as a growing mental health and sexual harassment crisis are some of the key issues we face.
“Our movement’s response will determine the years to come.
“The snap general election illustrates our tasks. It is critical that our movement uses its national profile to fight against the scapegoating of migrants, for an education that is valued and funded, and defends our ability to both build links with the rest of the world, as students and citizens.
“This vision will be crucial in the next 50 days. However, it must also be at the heart of everything we do as a movement. It is that vision which has guided my presidency for the last twelve months. This year, I am re-standing to continue this work.
“Whether through demonstrations or lobbies of the houses of parliament, I have used every platform available to put forward our movement’s vision of a free, liberated, and accessible education for all. I am asking students to re-elect me so that we can continue this work together.”
Shakira Martin, a current Vice-President of the NUS and colleague of Bouattia, announced in March that she too would be making a bid for the presidency. She has pledged to set up a student poverty commission and has used her time in the NUS to shed light on the role that class still plays in education. Her re-election last year to the post of Vice President with the Further Education portfolio saw her run unopposed.
As far as student activism goes, Martin pitches her life experience as unique. A survivor of domestic violence who for a time delivered drugs before going back to college, accessibility to education as a lifeline is something close to her heart. Martin told Cherwell she sees her ideal presidency as “focusing on the things that stop students getting involved in their student union”, firstly “campaigning against unfair apprentice pay and anything that stops students getting immediate financial support … in all forms of education.”
Only NUS delegates are entitled to vote in the election for the national president.
The conference, taking place over a number of days, will also see the student body vote on key issues and resolutions introduced, as well as elections to other high profile posts. Two Oxford Students, Aliya Yule and Sean O’Neill, are running for positions on the National Executive Council (NEC) Block of 15. Together with representatives from other NUS ‘Zones’, such as liberation campaigns, who also sit on the NEC, the Block of 15 act as the interim decision making body for the NUS between meetings of the Conference.
After disaffiliation campaigns in universities around the country were won in the NUS’ favour with promises that there would be real change for students and that the union was not beyond hope, many will be looking to the Conference either as a vindication of how they voted last year, one way or the other. These are interesting times for the NUS.