“The outrage over free speech on campus is a distraction”: NUS president Shakira Martin

The national student leader on mental health, tuition fees, and coming “from the struggle”. 

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“The media is always flipping gassed up on ‘freedom of speech, freedom of speech,’” says Shakira Martin, president of the National Union of Students. She is responding to a furore over the hosting of controversial speakers and groups on campus. “This conversation is annoying. It’s a distraction."

The debate over what should and shouldn't be acceptable to say at Britain's universities – and who should and shouldn't be allowed to speak – has been bubbling away for some time, but recent events have pushed it back up to the surface.

One was the coverage of supposed attempts to "decolonise" Cambridge University's English Literature course by the union women's officer Lola Olufemi. Coverage of the story by newspapers, particularly the Telegraph, was criticised as inaccurate, misleading and encouraging bullying. Martin suggests that the affair was characterised by a hypocritical attempt to suppress Olufemi's freedom of speech.

On the equally contentious issue of so-called “safe spaces”, she says they can be seen as simple acts of courtesy.

"If the media and these politicians think that we’re snowflakes, they don’t want us to turn into an avalanche… and just start rolling shit out,” she starts, before trailing off, seemingly deciding the analogy is a touch cringe-worthy. Martin then speedily moves on to what she feels are more important issues for the students she represents.

"Let's talk about the number of students that are suffering from mental health problems, let’s talk about the number of students that can’t afford to eat every single day, let’s talk about the number of students that have to drop out... What makes me different, politically, yeah, is my pragmatic attitude.”

This attitude has helped Martin rise to the top of the NUS, with her own office in its Kings Cross headquarters. Aside from her children’s drawings on the wall, she hasn’t made the place her own – but the 29-year-old was never supposed to make it this far in the first place. For those crowing about the need for diversity in politics, here is your answer: a black, comprehensive-educated single mother, who left her working-class home at 16 and did not go to university.

“I might be a question on, like, Eggheads, one day,” says Martin, marvelling at her rise. After a brief stint as a drugs “courier”, and dropping out of various courses, she eventually got involved with student politics through her college, climbing the NUS ranks to become the union's vice-president of further education before beating the incumbent Malia Bouattia to the presidency in April.

Unsurprisingly after Bouattia's radical and sometimes controversial leadership, some on the left have interpreted Martin's pragmatism as centrism. No one, though, is arguing that she lacks character. She’s expressive, refreshing and charismatic, and she knows it: “I’m quirky. My one liners are banging. I laugh at my own self, man.”

As well as her humorous side, there is also a serious aspect to Martin, who describes herself as being “from the struggle”. This comes out on issues such as Brexit. "Reverse the whole thing,” she says. “On the compromise, we want security around the Erasmus programme, the European Social Fund, the protection of our international students and academic staff to live, work and travel here and to take students out of the migration numbers.

“When we talk about the amount of money that the EU has invested in the research fund and the Erasmus programme and stuff like that, how are we gonna fill that gap? The international students and the EU contribute a lot to our education system. We talk about skills, how are we going to share good practice from industry with our European brothers and sisters when we’re going to be divorcing them?”

She says the government “don’t know what they are doing” over Brexit and slams their “unacceptable” use of international students “as scapegoats and bargaining chips”, before predicting that society’s most marginalised will be worst-hit by the UK's departure from the EU.

Alongside Brexit, she lists poverty and mental health as the main problems facing students. “[In] every single college across the country, a student has reported mental health problems. This is an epidemic, this is something that we need to tackle and it's down to student poverty,” she says. “Mental health starts way before university. It’s not about sticking a plaster on it and thinking that will deal with it. It’s not about cure, it’s about prevention – that’s about working with young people from early on.”

Unlike some NUS presidents past, she’s eager to broaden the conversation into all aspects of education – not just universities. Harking back to her further education roots, she points out that  "it was adversity, not university, that got me here”. You can occasionally detect a note of annoyance in the way she talks about universities and the emphasis the union she runs has placed on them.

The first black female NUS president (Bouattia was acclaimed as such on the technicality of “political blackness”) is less gushing about scrapping tuition fees than her predecessors, despite our talking just days before the annual free education protest.

The demonstration – which is not officially endorsed by NUS – aims to put pressure on a government reportedly considering reducing tuition fees, reinstating maintenance grants, or scrapping student debt, depending on whom you believe.

“Don’t get me wrong, tuition fees is a major thing,” Martin says, before citing Scotland – where fees have been scrapped – as an example of where free tuition has not been the answer to everything. “We need to be talking about the same type of support in further education and in apprenticeships. It’s the small things that make big things happen. This is all the road to free education but the ultimate thing is investment. Tuition fees alone isn’t going to solve the issue.”

Her current position comes with not insignificant power and influence. She smiles when recalling sitting on panels “with these educators and professors”. “They’ll be giving you the stats and facts, I’ll just give you the real life experience of what this means.” 

Part of the role is meeting policy makers. “I’ve met a number of these minister people,” she says with a hint of disdain, which turns to obvious annoyance when universities minister Jo Johnson is mentioned. “Jo Johnson talking about free speech the other day,” she sighs. “I’m like, bruv, you still need to explain your comments about students living frugally. We want to hear your speech on bringing back maintenance grants.

“I don’t think he gets it, he just needs to listen to students more.”

Perhaps predictably, Jeremy Corbyn is “great”. Less predictably, Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is a “really nice man”. Martin jokes that she and Cable, with whom she worked before either led their respective organisations, were "gonna do a dance together but we ain’t got time for that now”.

Eventually, Martin aspires to be the principal of her old college, Lewisham Southwark, and to see her children become NUS presidents (“they’re in training”).

There’s no suggestion that she’s thinking about a conventional career in politics, but the answer to whether she will fight for another term at the NUS comes back emphatically: “100 per cent. I wouldn’t come this far to not.”

For now, she says she wants to be remembered for speaking with integrity: “Showing that you don’t have to sound this way or look this way to be able to be taken seriously. I want to be remembered as that person that people can look at and be like, ‘If she can do it, I can’, because my story is one out of millions.”