In conversation with Zamzam Ibrahim, President of the National Union of Students

30th Aug 2019
In conversation with Zamzam Ibrahim, President of the National Union of Students

(Photo: Benny Johnson/NUS)

Zamzam Ibrahim officially took over as National Union of Students (NUS) President from Shakira Martin last month becoming the union’s  second Muslim female president. Ibrahim titled her candidacy ‘A fighting NUS’ and centred it on tackling racism on campus and “extortionate” tuition fees during her presidency. The former President of the Salford University Students’ Union, who pledged to lead a National Student Strike, was chosen from a list of five candidates at the NUS conference in Glasgow. Ibrahim spoke to The Muslim News a month into her presidency.

 What would you say is the most pressing issue as President of the NUS?
The most pressing issue for the NUS is acknowledging that we need systemic change in Education and hence this month I will be outlining a ten-year plan for a radical and transformational National Education Service that would introduce a lifelong, fully funded, and accessible service for all. A National Education Service can be like the NHS for education.

Where there is a common vision, but the nuanced provision, which takes account of devolved governments, modes of learning, and the breadth of our learners. One of the biggest failures of the current system is that 85 per cent of the jobs we will do haven’t been invented yet, but it’s almost impossible for many people to re-access education to keep up with our accelerated economy. To truly serve our society we need to radically re-think post-16 education from being a one-off activity to something integrated throughout our lives. We’re going to need flexible qualifications which can be studied over time. And the ability to re-train later in life.

The Union of Jewish Students has said your election promise to combat anti-Semitism “must include opposing the delegitimisation of Israel.” Do you agree with that sentiment? And is there a conflict between your pledge to fight anti-Semitism and your support for the BDS movement?
Students have a long and proud history of campaigning for peace, justice, and the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people – long may that continue. But, we also need to be clear that these campaigns must take place without making students on campus feel unsafe because of their race or religion.
The whole ethos of our movement is built on building collective power, bringing students on side, and making a change with them. We’ll use our collective power to make the change, but it is also equally true that it’s the idea of collectivism itself we must treasure.
It’s in this light I made it a campaign pledge of mine to tackle antisemitism on campus, and as President, I’ll be supporting antisemitism training conducted by the Union of Jewish Students to NUS’ Officers.

Latest stats from the Office for Students showed that more than 2,000 events across 300 or so higher education institutions have been affected by Prevent including Pro-Palestine events at Exeter, LSE University College London and they have been policed or cancelled under Prevent. How will the NUS protect political activism under such environments?
 For the NUS, keeping students safe is paramount and we are currently awaiting the outcome of the independent review into Prevent. No student should have their freedoms curtailed by a racist, reactionary agenda and everyone deserves to feel safe and able to organise events on their campuses. The implementation of Prevent relies on racial profiling, making Muslim students, in particular, a common suspect. It is stifling students’ ability to organise politically or practise their faith, for fear of referral.
At NUS, we have been laying the ground for the abolition Prevent. We have been connecting our campaigning beyond the student sphere, forging solidarity with civil liberties group, faith groups and working-class Muslim communities on the sharpest edge of Prevent. We cannot and have not felt for promises to ‘diversify’ Prevent to non-Muslim communities or attempts to rebrand and manufacture ‘community’ support for it. We continue to seek an end to Prevent.

1 in 3 Muslim students say they are living in fear of Islamophobic attacks or abuse on campus, according to the NUS survey which found that Muslim women, who wear the hijab, niqab or jilbab, were significantly more likely to be concerned for their safety. What do you think should be done to tackle Islamophobia in higher education?
Earlier this year, NUS UK Conference voted to formally adopt the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia, and to commit to a suite of actions to tackle Islamophobia in the student movement, and across society. With Islamophobia on the rise in the UK, and across the world, it’s the responsibility of everyone to take a stand.
That doesn’t only mean taking on the intolerance and hatred in its most extreme forms, but uprooting it wherever it exists, and we recognise that our own movement has work to do. It’s right that the student movement has committed to leading by example, with training for student officers, a commitment to hold those to account for use of racialised or Islamophobic tropes, and the adoption of the APPG on British Muslims’ definition. We need others to step forward, in particularly universities, civic society, those in leadership positions and beyond – to adopt this definition of Islamophobia as a start in combating this evil in our society.

A report from the NUS and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies earlier this year found only 38 per cent of respondents agreed that their students unions understand their needs as Muslim students. What do you attribute that loss in confidence to?
 NUS Muslim representatives and Muslim Student Officers have faced disproportionate abuse over recent years and it’s fair to say this has not been dealt with it adequately by our movement. The NUS understands that Muslim students face particular growing issues.

The Experiences of Muslim Students report set out a series of recommendations to guide students’ unions, colleges and universities on how they can better support their Muslim students both on and off-campus. We will ensure that the organisation supports those facing abuse making sure Muslim students feel they can engage with democratic and campaigning spaces. Campuses must be safe, accessible and welcoming for students of all backgrounds, faiths and experiences, as should our movement.

What challenges if any do you think you will face as Union’s only second Muslim female president?
There are many challenges for any Muslim woman in a leadership position, especially in such a high profile one as National President of the NUS. But I have a laser-like focus on bringing our movement together, working on the issues which can transform our students’ lives. For me, that’s the creation of a National Education Service, with education and life-long learning free from ‘cradle-to-grave’.

Interview by Elham Asaad Buaras

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