Shakira Martin: The new NUS President who's open to Israel and claims she's more radical than Corbyn

NUS President Shakira Martin – the underdog who has overcome every challenge in her way

Shakira Martin has won the NUS presidency (Credit: Twitter @ShakiraSweet1)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

After all the controversy surrounding Malia Bouattia, the accusations of anti-semitism and outright racism, NUS members would be forgiven for wanting a fresh start.

With the election of Shakira Martin to president, it's safe to say they've got that - and then some.

Martin sensationally unseated Bouattia in the presidential election today (April 26), winning 56% of the vote in what represents a huge turn-up for the books. Many will now be turning to Martin and asking what she will do as president, and it's safe to say her regime won't be dull.

While Bouattia has regularly been accused of anti-semitism due to a series of incendiary remarks, notably her description of Birmingham University as a 'Zionist outpost,' Martin has previously pledged to keep an open mind on Israel, no matter how much criticism she receives.

Earlier this year she accepted a trip to Israel with the Union of Jewish Students, saying she wanted to see both Israeli and Palestinian sides (although the Facebook post in which she announced she had accepted this invitation appears to have been taken down in light of her election victory).

Martin is certainly no stranger to adversity and tough decisions. Born in Lewisham to a Jamaican family and raised by a single mum, she moved into shared council accommodation just two weeks after she turned 16. She enrolled in a series of different courses, and now admits she couriered drugs to get some money. In fact she says this experience has given her crucial life skills and helped make her the person she is.

She eventually landed a job at a doctor’s surgery in Camberwell, and decided she would go for the job of practice manager, finding she was enjoying the job she had – only to be told she could rise to the position in about 20-30 years. Instead of being deterred or disheartened, Martin enrolled in a leadership and management course and saw ithrough to the end, collecting the accolade of student of the year along the way.

More college courses followed, and it was in this time Martin became a parent. She will be juggling her role as NUS president will the responsibility of raising two daughters as a single mum.

One day, she saw a poster for the election of a woman officer for the student union. Feeling empowered, she went for the position and won it. This was a beginning of a rise up the ladder of the union, being elected to the presidency the following year.

Notably in this time, she had an encounter with then-business secretary Dr. Vince Cable, and posed him a question about college representation that won her praise from many members. What eventually followed was the election to the vice-presidency of Further Education (FE) in the NUS in 2014, and in this role her lobbying helped secure a £500m investment in FE last month. It was also in this time she began working with Cable on a research project on how major reforms would impact higher education, which will be published this autumn.

She has said that her fall into politics was “accidental”, but she now appears to be a woman on a mission, committed to students' rights and unafraid of gender or racial stereotypes. On the eve of the presidential election, she told the Guardian that Jeremy Corbyn paled in comparison to her when it came to radical policies - an indication that she may pursue some very eye-catching campaigns while NUS leader. 

One of the most pressing, and high-profile items in her in-tray will be the future of international students. The Government has been heavily criticised for failing to nail down its position on migrants living in the UK, a stance which obviously impinges on students from overseas. Martin has made it clear she will fight for the rights of international students, doing everything in her power to ensure the Government protects them in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. So don't be surprised to see her talking to Andrew Neil or Adam Boulton soon.

After all the name-calling and recrimination of the Bouattia era, the NUS has wiped the slate clean. And its new leader seems well-equipped to drag the body into a brighter, more productive period.