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Wed Sep 13, 2017, 01:53 PM

NUS president Shakira Martin: This goes way beyond tuition fees. We are talking about class

NUS president Shakira Martin: ‘This goes way beyond tuition fees. We are talking about class’

As a single mother who did not attend university, Martin is determined to make sure working-class students are better supported, and to widen the conversation around ‘middle-class feminism’

Shakira Martin: ‘If I don’t use this opportunity and try to make the most of it – when I leave here, I will be Shakira Nobody.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

The new president of the National Union of Students (NUS) has not yet met the universities minister, but it would be fun to be a fly on the wall when they finally come face to face.
Shakira Martin and Jo Johnson could not come from more contrasting backgrounds: Johnson went to Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Martin studied at a comprehensive in Catford and Lewisham Southwark College, a further education (FE) college. And although much of what Martin says will be familiar to the minister – on tuition fees, student debt and mental health – she clearly has her own priorities and her own way of articulating them.

A single mother of two who left home at 16, Martin finished school with one GCSE in Religious Studies. After several false starts, she returned to college where she became active in student politics and is now determined to represent the working-class community she grew up in; she is the first woman from an African-Caribbean background to become NUS president and only the second not to have studied at university.

When she talks about the barriers facing poorer students and overcoming adversity, she quotes the Canadian rapper Drake (“Started from the bottom, now we’re here”). When you ask her about government claims of record-breaking numbers of disadvantaged students at university, she retorts: “I find that very disrespectful. God save the minister that comes to me and says: ‘Shakira, widening participation has gone up in university.’ Um, excuse me? How many of those [students] are staying in university, how many are getting firsts at university, how many of those are going into quality jobs?” Not enough, is the implication.

And she has some advice for the UK’s two most elite universities, which recently topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings: “Oxbridge, get a proper strategy to get more BME [black and minority ethnic] students in your institutions. It’s just not good enough. People like me, I would never think I could get to those type of universities.” Martin agrees that sexual harassment and violence against women is a major issue in higher education and commends the work done by her NUS colleagues. But her concern extends beyond university campuses. “I have spoken to FE students who have been victims of sexual harassment, but they have not even identified it as that.” She describes the case of a young college student who has been thrown out by her mother and is staying at the house of a friend who is pressurising her for sex. “She’s feeling like she has to sleep with a boy to keep a roof over her head. This young girl is being sexually harassed and doesn’t even know that’s what it is.”

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