Profile: Zamzam Ibrahim, NUS president

The union leader from Bolton talks to University Business about reforming the NUS, sexual harassment and her style of leadership

Zamzam Ibrahim, national president of the National Union of Students (NUS), says she is here to “shake the door” in a fiery statement of ambition. She will not be president for long, but sees her role as guardian of the union’s deeply held mission to support young people’s access to education. 

Zamzam, who took office last July, has laid out the union’s national objectives in a new 10-point action plan – and wrote an opinion piece on the topic for our December 2019 issue. The union’s number one priority is the formation of a National Education Service, including extra funding and regulation, and an end to marketisation.

The other priorities include: affordable housing and transportation; accessible healthcare; better support for students with disabilities and mental health conditions; stopping a no-deal Brexit and improving international students’ lives; decolonising education; abolishing the government’s education counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent; combatting sexual violence and harassment; and tackling transphobia in education. Quite the list. Quite the president.

I arrange to meet Zamzam in ‘The Quad’ of Middlesex University the day before Britain heads to the polls. We are meeting at Middlesex because the university sits on the edge of two north London bellwethers; Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green. Both are held by Conservative members and Zamzam has arrived to rally the student electorate and flip the seats.

Sitting down to write this profile after the results of the general election, I wonder whether the NUS will have to recalibrate its ambitions. The UK did not (and nor, incidentally, this corner of Barnet) back the politics Zamzam stands for, which may put some of her loftier goals out of reach. Despite the election result, Zamzam says her aspirations remain undiminished. 

“Both of my parents would remind me of how privileged and lucky I was to be able to access one of the best education systems in the world for free,” Zamzam says.

The personal is political

At the outset of our conversation, Zamzam is keen to talk about her parents. The daughter of Somalian refugees, Zamzam lived in Sweden before she, and her family, moved to Bolton in Lancashire where she spent the formative years of her life. 

To this day, she says she is “conscious in remembering” her peers at primary and secondary school and “understanding where those people went and why”. She feels too many had their education “stifled” and says policies like education maintenance allowance (EMA) were a lifeline to people like her at that time. She describes using her EMA to pay for food and travel on alternate days, unable to afford both meals and the bus fare.

“Some days I ate and some days I walked to college,” she reflects. These experiences catapulted her into politics, but she says, for others, “their visions, I guess, were broken or burned down” by their circumstances. 

Despite this, she describes her life as “privileged” in no uncertain terms. Her parents were educated, but after their move to Europe, “education meant nothing”, Zamzam recalls. Her father was “driven by knowledge” and her mother was “very much an activist” – both “fostered in us all a will to educate ourselves”.

Speaking of her mother, Zamzam says: “She couldn’t hear a single problem without asking me to find a solution. I think both of my parents would remind me of how privileged and lucky I was to be able to access one of the best education systems in the world for free.” 

“My first-ever job was teaching refugee kids English. My father paid me to teach somebody else’s kids. And I was like, just give me the money directly, it could be my pocket money, but he was teaching me the importance of giving back. And opening the doors for somebody that didn’t have the privilege I had,” Zamzam says. 

The future of the NUS

Zamzam has been involved in the NUS for the last five years and she says, in that time, “it was never clear what the organisation was doing as a whole”. It was this feeling which prompted her to create a manifesto for the movement. Different branches across the country are elected “on different mandates with different plans”, she says, and coalescing around one central plan was important to “let students know what the hell we’re working on”.

That confusion stemmed from the very top, she says. 

“I think the organisation has been fragmented in the last four years. What was clear from our national conference was members wanted a united team, regardless of political differences. And I think this year the team has really listened to the membership and has delivered on that. Every single person in the team is in agreement with everything that is in the plan. And, the funny thing is, we haven’t had a team that’s been this united in years.

When things become mainstream, I think it’s our place to move on to something that nobody is talking about

“I think the space that we fill, as student unions, as student leaders, is to shake up the political scene, and to highlight things that aren’t being highlighted by the public. When things become mainstream, I think it’s our place to move on to something that nobody is talking about.”

Despite the difference of opinions in the union, Zamzam says it was not hard to find common ground. “I think education should be funded through the state, but there are members of the team who think education should be funded through progressive taxation. I don’t agree with that. After debating it, we agreed what we should be campaigning for isn’t the half-baked compromise; we should be campaigning for what we want and what we need.”

It sounds like there was a debate, and Zamzam won.

“I wouldn’t call it winning,” she quickly replies. “What has been the biggest problem in the NUS in the last couple years is that it has been a very divided team and the intention has never been to have a conversation like we did. In the past, it’s been malicious. People have been paranoid about each other.”

The organisation Zamzam inherited had been rocked by financial problems and a £3.5m deficit – a thorny topic Zamzam’s predecessor, Shakira Martin, had to tackle before she stepped down at the end of her term last year.

Despite not appearing on the union’s 10-point plan, calming the storm seems to be at the centre of this new president’s mission. “The foundations of the organisation got knocked down,” she explains, “and the organisation was put in a position where it had no choice but to cut down the amount of money we were spending or else it was going to go bankrupt.” 

Cutting costs led to “panic and the loss of key staff that had been there for years”, Zamzam continues. The impact of this was to take a heavy toll on the NUS. “Conferences became critical spaces for point-scoring,” Zamzam observes, and the union’s national campaigns fell by the wayside as the organisation was rocked by low morale and “chaos”.

A large gap opened up between the NUS and students, she concludes. 

“I know the impact that huge reform does to an organisation. When I was president at Salford, we went through a very shaky time when we lost our chief executive and a lot of staff left the organisation. I was the only second year officer and the team felt like they didn’t have any leadership. I realised the importance of leadership and morale in an organisation.”

When asked what she had learned from observing her predecessors at work, Zamzam says: “To think the best of every situation and of everybody.

“This role is very high profile. Surprisingly so. Things move so fast that it is really easy to think that somebody has done something maliciously.”

“I think the vision isn’t visionary enough; I think it could be so much more visionary,” Zamzam says of the NUS 10-point plan.

Achievable ambitions

Given the scale of the financial challenges, I ask if it’s achievable to offer such a comprehensive list of priorities in a manifesto. Zamzam say she is confident in the organisation and her team, and adds, with a wry smile: “I guess it helps having an accounting and finance degree, because I don’t have to spend hours trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.”

“This isn’t a one-year plan. None of us can claim to have done the work in that plan; all we’ve done is bring the work together. This work is going to happen after we leave. I think the vision isn’t visionary enough; I think it could be so much more visionary.

“I think we, as student leaders, limit ourselves to the timeframe we have in our roles. People think of something realistic to do in a year, but, actually, the way I see my role is to shake the door so that it opens a little bit for the next person to come shake it some more.”

The way I see my role is to shake the door so that it opens a little bit for the next person to come shake it some more

Zamzam hopes in a decade higher education will be free, mental health services will be funded under the NHS and universities will not be expected to offer counselling services of their own. 

“One of the things we tried to do is reimagine education as a whole. It has been really fun to have conversations about a completely transformed education system. Scrapping the classroom mentality. Scrapping the ‘sit down and do a three-hour exam’ mentality.”

Although she doesn’t like to use the term, Zamzam says universities do not understand their “customers”. 

“But I don’t think the intention is to understand the customer. I think the intention is to package the university, so it is ‘glammy’. It’s like decorating the front of a shop.” 

The president bemoans the investment into “glitz and glam” buildings instead of university staff. She says if there was greater emphasis on learning, “the debate would still be about the marketisation of education – which is problematic – but at least students would be getting a better-quality education. The money should be going into the output students get in the classroom, the support students get writing assignments, but that’s not happening”. 

Tackling sexual harassment 

The NUS commissioned a report in 2010 on gender violence and sexual harassment on university campuses, which in turn led to a Universities UK report on the same subject a few years later. But with the issue still very much on the agenda in 2019, how far does Zamzam think the sector has come in recognising the issue?

“I think we’re much closer. And I think, maybe this is optimistic, but I do think there are universities that are starting to take it seriously.” 

But what of the others? Zamzam names universities she feels are behind the curve on tackling this issue. She says reputational damage is still the biggest consideration in some institutions’ approach to handling sexual harassment complaints and too often it serves to entrench a “hush-hush mentality”. 

“This year Rachel Watters, NUS’s women’s officer, is working with Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, on this issue – specifically the reporting structures universities use and how victims are impacted. The NUS is also raising the profile of ways students can report incidents. Our unions are running their own campaigns and we will be supporting them in that.”

Zamzam says the NUS is running the campaign because too many students are turning to social media for redress “when their university doesn’t take them seriously”. 

“Things blow up on social media and the university does everything it can to cover it up. I think the role we need to play as a national body, and through our student unions, is to make sure victims don’t feel the only way they can deal with sexual harassment is to publicly put themselves in a very difficult and harmful position.” 

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Cost of accommodation

While it is hard to argue that safety is not a pressing issue in university halls, the cost of accommodation is a harder challenge to crack. How can universities take responsibility for the escalating costs when market forces are stacking up against them?

“I don’t believe it is outside of universities’ control,” Zamzam responds. “Rent should be capped in halls because there are cases now when a maintenance loan doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of accommodation.

“I think the biggest issue is private providers building around campuses that have agreements with universities, which then advertise that hall to their students. If student finance doesn’t cover the cost of the student halls, the university should not be advertising it.”

If student finance doesn’t cover the cost of the student halls, the university should not be advertising it

The authors of a recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute and UPP Ltd suggested universities must “think hard about how to choose the partners who will build or service accommodation [so] this relationship can offer less expensive options for students”. According to Unipol, the overall average weekly student rent stands at £147 – an increase of 5% on the previous year. The average student now pays £6,366 a year, with rents in London nearing £9,000 per annum. 

Many universities are based in some of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the country, where the cost of land and surrounding housing stock may limit ambitions to reduce student rents.

“If we want to invest in our students and their ability to succeed, then we need to invest in them. I think universities play a direct role in ensuring that they don’t support or promote private institutions that are charging students a ludicrous amount. But, also, many institutions are in the financial position to offer bursaries to those who can’t afford to live in those cities. I think it’s a cop-out, especially from the big, well-known institutions,” Zamzam says.

She also supports an expansion in university-provided accommodation for second- and third-year students. 

“If the education sector wants to talk about widening participation and breaking the poverty gap, then you can’t expect a student who comes from a working-class background, who is unable to fund themselves, to do well at university because they will probably spend most of their time at university working a job,” Zamzam adds.

According to Unipol, the overall average weekly student rent stands at £147 – 5% up on last year.

Working-class officers 

Last year, some local NUS branches made the decision to elect working-class officers. I ask Zamzam if it is a move she hopes will be replicated nationally. She shakes her head. 

“A working-class officer would permit every other officer not to work for working class members,” she replies. 

“I don’t how what role a working-class officer would have in questioning structural barriers that a woman’s, a trans, a black, or a disabled student’s officer isn’t highlighting already. When we highlight structural barriers, like institutional racism, we’re also highlighting the class issue.” 

I ask if a white, working-class male student would, necessarily, feel the same. Zamzam disagrees, stresses her original point, and adds, “Speaking as someone from a working-class background, the structural barriers that I faced as a black woman were much higher than the ones I faced as a working-class woman alone. Right.”

“There are issues that need to be highlighted, but I don’t think they are missed out. And one of the things I can comfortably say is that every single officer currently in the national NUS team is from a working-class background. And so actually, arguably, we already understand the class issue because we face it ourselves in our everyday lives,” she continues. 

“He might as well turn around and say university is not for the working-class community,” Zamzam says of Chris Skidmore, universities minister

Zamzam says universities are a vital part of the social mobility puzzle and fears funding pressures could be harming those institutions doing the most for working-class students in the UK. 

“I have spoken to a lot of different vice-chancellors and senior leaders, particularly those in post-1992 universities, and they feel they’re in this weird, difficult bubble, where they’re having to recruit as many students as they can to make ends meet because their numbers are so tight. They might go under if they don’t recruit enough students.” 

Chris Skidmore, and some of his Conservative predecessors at the Department for Education, have critiqued what has been described as a ‘bums on seats’ culture.

Zamzam retorts: “I think it’s ridiculous to say that knowing full well you’ve squeezed these institutions that are struggling to survive. These are the institutions that take the highest number of working-class people. He might as well turn around and say university is not for the working-class community.”

That passion for education – and for sharing it – combined with a love of activism, makes Zamzam sound almost predestined for the role she now holds. With a Conservative majority government now in place, the NUS’s 10-point manifesto might have to take a back seat while the organisation mounts more pressing campaigns.

But, in the words of Zamzam herself, she’ll no doubt “shake the door” for her successor. And governments don’t last forever. Expect to hear some rattling. 

You might also like: Zamzam Ibrahim: NUS’s 2020 Plan of Action

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