The new president of the National Union of Students has pledged to “reconnect” the organisation with campus unions, after several voted to disaffiliate.
In her first speech since becoming national president at the start of this month, Malia Bouattia said that she had “absolutely heard the arguments” of students who voted to break away in the wake of her election in April.
Ms Bouattia, who has faced accusations of anti-Semitism – which she vehemently denies – and criticisms for sharing a platform with the controversial advocacy group Cage, acknowledged that “many an article” had been written about her since she unseated Megan Dunn as president.
But she said that many people who claimed to know what she stood for “have never met me, or spoken to me”.
And Ms Bouattia said that she was “proud” that 11 of the 15 students’ unions that had held referendums on disaffiliation had voted to stay, with only four – Lincoln, Hull, Newcastle and Loughborough – opting to leave.
“I have absolutely heard the arguments of those who wanted to leave,” Ms Bouattia said. “Some have opposed unions, the values of collective action and solidarity, which we have had to face throughout NUS’ history.
“I believe that we need to take these arguments head-on and repeat always that beyond our debates and disagreements, it is in our numbers that our strength lies – but not only our strength, also our diversity, our creativity and our beauty as a movement.”
Ms Bouattia, the NUS’ first black female president, said that the referendums had demonstrated the need for the NUS to “reconnect with [its] grass roots”. She unveiled a plan for regional networks of students that would hold regular meetings and would, in her words, “lay the basis for strengthening our responses to local and national challenges”.
“We often talk about being a movement of 7 million, and we are right to be proud of that fact, but sometimes I wonder whether instead we should talk about acting as a movement of 7 million,” Ms Bouattia said.
In the speech, given to student officers and staff at the NUS’ Students’ Unions 2016 event, Ms Bouattia announced plans for a demonstration for free education to be held in London on 12 November.
She also said that combating discrimination and fighting for equality had to be “at the heart of what we do”, especially in light of the rise in racist attacks that has followed the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.