NUS election: Corybn-supporting activist sets sights on presidency | Education


A Jeremy Corbyn-supporting student activist is hoping to unseat Shakira Martin as president of the National Union of Students (NUS) when elections are held at its annual conference this week in what could herald a shift to the left in student politics.

Hoping to capitalise on a new political engagement among students who recently mobilised in support of striking university workers, the left wing of the student movement is fighting to lead the 7 million-strong membership, putting forward candidates for a series of executive roles in Wednesday’s elections.

Martin’s main rival for the presidency is Sahaya James, a member of Momentum’s national executive and campaigns officer at the student union of the University of the Arts London, where she recently organised an occupation in protest against the university’s development plans in Elephant and Castle, which she condemned as gentrification.

James has played a key role in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, organising a national march in November. She has also been taking part in the wave of student occupations in campuses across the country in support of lecturers and other university staff striking over pension changes.

“It’s been absolutely incredible to witness,” she said. “The pensions dispute has triggered a lot of students who have started to consider and think about how universities are being run. It’s been hugely educative – students are looking at what’s driving the pensions dispute and making links with marketisation in higher education.”

NUS elections are difficult to predict. Traditionally the incumbent president has hung on for a second year-long term, but last year Martin managed to see off Malia Bouattia after a troubled year in office, dogged by allegations of antisemitism. James will hope to do the same this time around.

Her manifesto states: “For too long, our national union has been detached and isolated from the activists on the ground who have the real capacity to reshape education and society.

“I’m standing to be national president because we need to radically overhaul NUS, democratising our structures in order to become a serious campaigning force – bold in its vision for a free and liberated education and is prepared to fight for it.”

Under her leadership, she says the NUS would ally itself with national Labour politics and the fight against inequality and austerity, and she promises a campaign for a universal living grant and student rent strikes across the country.

She told the Guardian: “Students don’t have time to wait around for an NUS which has too often been nowhere to be seen on both campus and the wider political discourse so have got on with campaigning and winning on the issues, such as rent and mental health, that they face every day.

Shakira Martin, president of the NUS, at their headquarters in central London.



Shakira Martin, the president of the NUS, at their headquarters in central London. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

“We should fight for free education and an education system run democratically by students and workers for the many not the few. We need an NUS which campaigns for what we need in wider society too: for free movement, nationalising the banks and the abolition of all student debt.”

Martin remains popular but has been forced to deny allegations of bullying at NUS headquarters in London. Her manifesto promises to fight student poverty, defend their rights and ensure the union is ready for the next general election.

While this year’s leadership battle is likely to be between Martin and James, a third candidate is also running. Momin Saqib, the first non-European international student to be elected as president of King’s College London students’ union, highlights the government’s anti-terrorism strategy Prevent, mental health and value for money in his manifesto.

George Bunn, from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said: “There is a real buzz among student unions and on campuses at the moment – a radical spirit we haven’t seen in years. We can’t be sure exactly how that will translate into conference votes, because delegates were elected before the strikes happened, but this could be a real breakthrough towards building a serious grassroots student movement.”

Ana Oppenheim, who is standing for vice-president (higher education) alongside James, said there was dissatisfaction with the NUS leadership, which seemed more interested in lobbying parliament and appearing in the media than engaging with student activism.

Oppenheim said she was also concerned about what she described as an unhealthy and undemocratic culture at NUS headquarters.

“[The election] is very unpredictable. We’ve seen how millions of young people mobilised to vote for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn at the last election. We’ve seen what’s happening on campuses right now, with thousands of students taking part in occupations in support of striking lecturers.

“It’s generated a new sense of excitement after a very quiet past few years. A lot of students who have not been activists before have suddenly found themselves in the middle of this dispute, showing solidarity with staff in all sorts of ways. It’s exciting.”

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