Sunday 24-04-2016 - 00:00
At our National Conference in Brighton on Wednesday, I was elected the next president of the National Union of Students. I’ll be the first black woman to hold this position, and the first Muslim too.
It’s a landmark in our history, a sign of just how far we’ve come, but the backlash and treatment I’ve received since my election is a stark reminder of the journey that still lies ahead of us.
I’ve been called an Isis sympathiser and a terrorist, despite proposing and voting for a motion at our national executive council that condemned Isis in no uncertain terms. We collectively delayed the vote to ensure clarity in wording, yet as a Muslim woman it’s me who is painted as a threat.
I’ve been called a racist and an anti-semite, despite a track record of fighting fascism and racism in all its forms. I’ve made it clear at every opportunity that there is no room for prejudice in our movement, on our campuses, or in society as a whole. It’s why our union last week committed to remember Holocaust Memorial Day, to battle anti-semitism, and to stand up to oppression wherever we find it. My manifesto pledge to restart work on faith and belief and campus cohesion is a priority.
Within our institutions we’ve already been working hard. For the past two years I’ve held the position of NUS black students’ officer, representing and campaigning for the hundreds of thousands of black students from up and down the UK. It’s not been easy — but I’m proud of our successes. During my time in office we’ve made headway with the black attainment gap, which sees black students across campuses almost 17 percentage points less likely to achieve high marks in their degree courses. The scheme I’ve designed to help tackle this is being rolled out by vice-chancellors nationwide.
I launched the Liberate My Degree campaign, to diversify our curricula and ensure that the content of our courses reflects the history, culture and experiences of those who sit in our lecture halls. I’ve campaigned to make sure black history is more than just one month.
Now I’m taking on the role of national president, and it couldn’t be at a more pivotal time.
Education in the UK is in crisis. Courses are being scrapped, staff made redundant, area reviews for English colleges will see further education face alarmingly deep cuts.
Tuition fee increases are back on the agenda, while the maintenance grants that so many of us rely on have been cut off. Student nurses are being asked to pay for the luxury of working tirelessly within the wards of our NHS. A generation of students is being forced out of education.
This government’s green paper is about to change the face of higher education indefinitely, and the very existence of our students’ unions is under threat.
I’ll also be talking about liberation, championing the vital work we do with the students who are most marginalised, and whose voices are too often left unheard. Our work with LGBT+ students couldn’t be more urgent — 34% of young LGB people and 48% of young trans people attempt suicide. A staggering 24% of homeless youth are LGBT.
Our campuses are rife with sexual violence — our research shows that one in seven female students has been the victim of serious sexual assault or serious physical violence while at university or college. I won’t sit quietly, I will work alongside our national women’s officer demanding that this be addressed.
This government has cut the disabled students’ allowance, despite cross-party protests, taking away a vital lifeline for some of our most vulnerable members. When it comes to mental health support, students are being let down. This is not acceptable and needs to be challenged.
We’ll also be standing up for our civil liberties and academic freedom. Our campaign to see the flawed and dangerous Prevent agenda scrapped and redesigned will go on. Affordable student housing, an end to tuition fees, accessible adult education are all within reach — and this is what our members have voted for.
The NUS has a proud history of campaigning on issues of social justice, and I’ll ensure we remain at the heart of a civil society that carries on in this vein. Our work on reducing harm to the environment, supporting trade unions and calling for more humane treatment of refugees will continue.
As I stood looking out at our national conference, the largest democratic student event in Europe, the level of support I saw in front of me was humbling. It is an honour to work alongside such courageous and dedicated students who want to change education for the better.
A shared vision of our movement’s future made it possible — it was the decision of students from all over this country.
In the wake of my election, and the unfounded attacks in the press, already I hear talk from some students of disaffiliation from the NUS.
Despite the fact delegates democratically elected me from our affiliated unions nationwide, some people who don’t agree with our views have decided they’ve already had enough.
I was elected with a mandate, our democratic structures ensure that’s the case. But I also know the diversity in our membership, that our millions of students don’t all think the same. Of course, there’ll be students with different political persuasions who’ll disagree with us. I ask you to join us, debate us, and hold me to account. Stand alongside me when we are united, and make your case when we aren’t.
But those using my election as an excuse to try and divide our national union, to dismantle an organisation that has fought for students and society as a whole against injustice for years — I will not allow this to happen, there’s far too much at stake.
Within days of arriving at Birmingham University as an undergraduate, I found myself on the brink of dropping out.
I was the only black student on my course, a woman, a refugee and a Muslim, in an environment that made clear I wasn’t welcome. Finding my students’ union is what saved me. It was my lifeline and what kept me in education.
I learnt that instead of accepting that the system is broken, we have a collective power as students to change things. I felt empowered, a sense of community, and saw first-hand just what these organisations can do.
It was my students’ union that stopped me dropping out, stopped me from turning into just another statistic. It’s a lesson I carry with me to this day.
This is why the message of the NUS remains unchanged — that education is a right and not a privilege, and must be transformative and available to all. My job, once I take office, will be to convince you that this is right and encourage you to work with me to make real change in education, our society and beyond.
As published online for Sunday Times, April 24, 2016