Shakira Martin: “Let’s not act like I’m a typical student leader. I am different”

The NUS president talks about why more support must be offered to working-class students. 

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Shakira Martin offers a sweet with the words “NUS National Conference” written on it. “It turns your tongue blue,”she warns. 

Martin was elected NUS president with 56 per cent of the vote this July, promising to restore the union to its members, end a period of vicious infighting, and create a NUS that would be “taken seriously”. How’s it going? “I feel like I’m doing it ... we’re gaining credibility back as an organisation.”

She opened her NUS conference election speech by stating “I’m a black, single, working-class mother”, making it clear, as she does in our meeting, that her circumstances not only affect her outlook, but play a central part in her approach to the plight of students and her style of leadership. “Let’s not act like I’m a typical student leader, I am different. The way I roll and the way that I work is totally different ... I like to use my adversity and experiences to help other people.” 

Martin believes that class has been wrongfully left out of the education debate. “The government often talks about poverty but doesn’t talk about class, so I’m hoping to highlight the class barriers that people are facing”. Beyond the struggle to get more working-class students into further and higher education – young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still two and half times less likely to enter higher education – she is championing the fight to increase support for them once they are there. The Office for Fair Access found that in 2015-16, 8.8 per cent of young, disadvantaged students did not continue in higher education past the first year.  “It’s not just about getting them into those institutions, but the support that they have while they’re studying.” 

Martin believes there isn’t enough assistance to make the right choice when it comes to education. “I feel it’s really important for us to have proper, impartial IAG – information, advice and guidance. It’s about being able to have the information prior to making decisions so that people know what the best route is for them.” When it comes to higher education, it’s not a case of “one size fits all,” she explains, “this notion that you go to university to be successful is totally untrue.” 

Without hesitation Martin says the single biggest challenge to working-class students is the scrapping of maintenance grants which were replaced by loans in 2016. “This disproportionately affects working-class students.” The 2017 Student Money Survey found the average maintenance loan was £600 per month, whilst the average monthly living cost was £821, and housing cost £394. “Students struggle on a day-to-day basis with finances, knowing whether to choose between bread and milk or going out socialising ... as [former Conservative Universities Minister] David Willetts and Lord Adonis said, the loan system now is regressive. It’s about time government starts listening to them and to me because I represent 7 million students, one of the biggest mandates in the country.” Martin strongly favours a return to the grants system and, in the absence of grants, argues that the maintenance loan should at least cover the cost of living. 

To address the issue of students living in poverty, Martin has set up a Poverty Commission, delivering on her flagship leadership campaign policy. “It’s a two-year project. The focus is looking at the financial barriers that working class people face in accessing and succeeding in education.” For the first year, the Commission will gather evidence and real-life case studies, which will form the basis of a series of recommendations. The second year will focus on campaigning for the recommendations to be implemented; ultimately “what I would like to get out of the Poverty Commission is for the government to do an independent review into student funding.” 

Martin is clear that the disadvantages associated with poverty and class continue past graduation. The OFFA report found that disadvantaged students are six per cent less likely to enter professional employment post-graduation. “There’s a certain level of social capital that working-class people may get when you go to higher education, but as soon as they leave it’s finished.” She uses the example of unpaid internships. “I know for me personally, as a single mother, that is just not an option – no matter how much experience I can get out of it.” The hypocrisy of unpaid parliamentary internships at the time of the Apprenticeship Levy, a government policy to tax businesses in order to create more apprentices, is particularly galling. “I don’t see how [it’s allowed when] it’s the government who has flipping policy on getting apprenticeships! They continue to breed the same kind of elitism.” On the type of young people these internships will attract, she suggests that “it ain’t going to be Jerome from Peckham”. The NUS represents around 250,000 apprentices, and this is expected to increase as the levy comes into act; “with the amount of money that the levy is going to generate, I would definitely welcome the national living wage for all apprentices.” 

For Martin, hearing and understanding individual cases is very important. “When I hear student issues, I feel personally responsible.” She lists multiple examples of conversations she’s had with students “on the ground”, including international students who can’t afford to go home for Christmas. “The amount of money that international students contribute to our education system and our economy … I think it’s outrageous.” On the day we meet, she has spoken to a mother who dropped out in her second year and transferred to a new university, but was paying for the course she dropped out of through a payment plan that will take £8,000 out of her current maintenance. “She’s got two kids. I had to leave her with the note of ‘don’t be deterred, there’s a bigger force fighting for you’ – but it would be much easier for that young mother to just drop out and be on benefits.”  

“It’s very easy for the government and policymakers to analyse data based on numbers, without understanding the pain and the suffering of what people go through … they wasn’t with me when I couldn’t get to college, when I was crying, when I felt like dropping out. It took a lot for me to get here.”

While she’s not personally a fan of the Conservative party, Martin believes in talking to a wide range of politicians – an approach that breaks with recent NUS practice. “I understand that as the president of the NUS, it’s important to work across all parties. The Tories are in government! We need a range of different tactics, from the streets to the boardroom and everything in between, to be able to win for our students.” She regularly makes her presence known to the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson; when his name is mentioned, she sighs deeply. “Poor Jo, Jo, Jo, Jo, Jo. I actually feel sorry for him. Poor ting.” Johnson’s recent suggestion that students struggling to live on a maintenance loan could get a job or live more modestly summarises, in Martin’s view, exactly what the government misses: “Students don’t have a choice when it comes down to living frugally. They don’t have enough money to be able to survive.” 

It is doubtful that anyone who has met Martin would underestimate her, not least Jo Johnson. Next on her agenda is a funding review: “The government announced at Tory party conference that they’re going to have a funding review. I need this funding review to happen now, but it will not be credible if students aren’t part of that process. And if the funding review is announced and there’s no students [represented], then I’ll come for you.” 

“As a leader I’ll be the last one to jump off the ship, I’ll be the first one to jump in front of the bullet, I’ll be the first one to have your back. Everybody knows what the NUS is against. It’s about time they know what we’re for.”

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.