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“I’m trying to heal the broken hearts in the movement”: An interview with NUS President Shakira Martin

Incite talks to the new NUS President about Surrey’s disaffiliation earlier this year and her plans for the coming year.

Shakira Martin sees herself as the unity candidate – healing well-worn divisions within the NUS, and bringing the institution closer to its members. But does she have both the vision and the mettle to do so? And what does she think of Surrey’s vote to disaffiliate earlier this year? Incite’s Jake Roberts and Akanshya Gurung briefly sat down with the new NUS President to find out.

We’re from the University of Surrey, which recently voted to leave the NUS for the first time. Our current students’ union (SU) President, Saskia Cochrane, was a delegate at the last NUS conference and campaigned for you to win. However, after the conference, the sabbatical officers (sabbs) won a vote to hold a referendum on our SU’s membership of the NUS and they, including Saskia, campaigned vigorously for Surrey to leave the NUS.

What do you think about this? Were you surprised about Tai Ademola’s [Surrey’s former VP Voice] and Saskia’s involvement?

It’s really disappointing when students’ unions disaffiliate, because our movement is built on collectivism and our collective voice. However, we did have a number of referenda in that academic year, and Surrey was just one of the last ones of that cycle. So in terms of “is there stuff the NUS could be doing better”, Surrey is not the only one that has disaffiliated, and so obviously there is an issue in some sort of connection [between the NUS and its national membership]. But I don’t know the ins and outs of why, in particular, Surrey’s sabbs led the leave campaign.

However, I can say that, knowing that they came to conference and campaigned for me – I did know Tai very well and I came up and met the team – they obviously felt like that they’d left the NUS in safe hands? Why? [laughs] That’s how I’m seeing it.

 

That’s why we were a bit confused as well.

Like I said I don’t know the ins and outs, it might be something in terms of their affiliation fees, I think it was maybe affiliation fees went up for a number of institutions –

 

It did go up by £3000.

Yeah, so I don’t know the issues around Surrey leaving, but I don’t think it was the same as the other referenda that were going on. However, you’re always welcome to come back! And also, there’s something in disaffiliation campaigns that is almost refreshing? Because sometimes it’s just about being heard or being seen, so one thing it has done is made us recognise “oh Surrey’s not happy, let’s see what can we can do to [change that]”.

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We’ve touched upon this, but we also wanted to ask: why do you think SUs in general have disaffiliated?

I think that there have been a number of different reasons why people have disaffiliated. I know personally, the reason why I ran to be President is because NUS wasn’t talking about the issues that I cared about, which was the same thing that was being echoed by the membership. So I think it was a whole range of factors, but I just think NUS has been out of touch with its members for the last few years and having a very ‘top-down’ approach in telling students’ unions what they think they should be doing or what they are doing well.

However, we’re in a new era – I call it the “Shak-era” [laughs] – where I’m definitely going to be listening to our members and learning from different experiences and learning from the mistakes and greatness of previous presidencies and officers. I think NUS has great potential when we are well and have got a collective voice. I think sometimes when we focus on too many different things, it can come out almost like gobbledegook and people don’t see the benefit [of NUS membership].

 

Lastly, what are your plans for the NUS this year? You’ve said you want things to improve; how exactly are you going about that?

There’s a few things. One thing I want to do is bring the credibility back to the NUS; I want our members to start believing that we are a national union that stands up for their national interest, and a movement that is talking about issues that students care about.

And also, I want us to be a national union that prides ourselves on leadership. I think over the last two years we’ve acted a bit like bad parents in terms of airing our dirty laundry and our conflicts out. I expect that officers are not always going to agree – we are a political organisation – but I think it’s really important to show leadership to our members. So this year, I’m working really hard to build that trust amongst the team. Yes, it’s political, but we’re elected representatives and people are looking up to us for leadership.

So I’m trying to heal the broken hearts in the movement, while getting the credibility back from the press, and students’ unions. I’m hoping not to have any referenda this year, definitely not based on the fact of “we’re out of touch”.

But I’m really, really excited about my Student Poverty Commission, the reason being is because I think it’s talking about something different that NUS hasn’t spoken about before. I think what’s actually going on in the media in terms of the conversations around tuition fees and free education gives a great opportunity for this work to be really, really relevant, not just for now but for the future. I think the general election showed that students are ready and they’re getting political, and I think this piece of work [the Student Poverty Commission] could stand on the shoulders of that work and kind of get people active. [Especially] a different group of people that might not traditionally be engaged in politics or education.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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