As Shakira Martin stood on the stage at last year’s National Union of Students conference in Brighton, the loudest cheers from delegates welcomed one of the newly-elected president’s most striking commitments: “Sticks and stones will break our bones, but we’ll kick the bullies out.”
But now Martin and a number of other officers face an NUS investigation after widespread, but disputed, allegations of bullying. The union’s management has now taken the extraordinary decision to order elected officials not to come into the office for the rest of this week, after reports people felt “unsafe”.
Multiple sources have claimed to HuffPost UK that the situation within the NUS has become so “toxic” in recent weeks that staff have been seen crying at their desks.
Specific allegations levelled against Martin include verbal threats and abusive language. One complaint is believed to involve a situation last week where Martin is claimed to have formed her hand into the shape of a gun and pointed it at colleagues through a glass partition wall. Current officers told HuffPost Martin has been verbally abusive to them on social media, making them afraid to go into the Grays Inn Road building alone.
But the NUS said last night that a number of counter claims of bullying among the organisation’s 20-strong top elected officer team have also been made. An NUS spokesperson said in a statement: “As chair of the NUSUK board, Shakira Martin has called for the complaints on social media to be investigated. These complaints and those about other full time officers are now under investigation and as an interim measure to protect all parties, all officers will be working from home this week.
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“All officers are still able to carry out the duties within their role while the allegations are being reviewed.
“While it is a not a situation the organisation wants to be in there are a series of measures that have been put in place to ensure the safety and support of staff, officers and volunteers is made a top priority.”
Hareem Ghani, the elected NUS women’s officer, told HuffPost that some colleagues have become so fearful in the office that they are meeting before work to go in together. “People shouldn’t be scared to go into the office, that is not OK,” she said. “The fact we have to pair up because we are scared for the safety of one another… it’s horrific.”
Martin responded in a Facebook Live broadcast on Monday night denying the allegations, saying: “People are spreading lies about me, saying that I am a bully [but] I am a bully hater.” And she later issued a statement, saying: “Unfortunately within the movement and the walls of NUS the values we hold so dear and even cover our walls with are not upheld.”
Joe Cox, a member of the NUS’s guiding National Executive Committee said that Martin has been “hounded” online since taking office. “The last two weeks [have seen] a deafening crescendo of online abuse masquerading as ‘accountability’, but the reality is that NUS has accountability procedures and these are not Twitter, they are not Facebook,” Cox said. “I am so proud of Shakira for standing against this.”
HuffPost’s account of the current situation at the NUS is based on interviews with 12 current and former officers, staff members, and activists. Most of those currently involved in the organisation spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity as protocols preclude them from unauthorised contact with the press. In an email to officers on Tuesday, NUS Chief Executive Simon Blake warned: “Breaches of the protocols and policies will be dealt seriously (sic).”
Meanwhile some of those who have now left the organisation requested anonymity because they still work in higher education, and others did so because they signed a form of non-disclosure agreement upon leaving NUS.
Yet despite differing perspectives, and contradicting opinions on the nature of political tensions (“It’s the Left versus the centre-right,” one person said. “The far-left think there’s a conspiracy,” another offered) a majority of people HuffPost spoke to seemed united on a central premise: the NUS is now so riven with division that it is struggling to serve its purpose of representing students.
You have broken me
Multiple sources attribute this quote to NUS President Shakira Martin
While student activism in Britain has long since had a reputation for bruising political infighting, the current situation is different, sources from across the movement said. This week, the 20-strong elected officer team have been told not to go into the office due to the “seriousness” of the situation.
“Given the volume and seriousness of the allegations and the information on social media and from other sources stating that officers feel unsafe I am instructing all NUS UK officers not to come into the office,” Blake wrote in an internal email to officers, obtained by HuffPost. One former officer said the move was highly unusual and unprecedented, in recent years at least.
It is understood that some of the complaints relate to an incident on December 5th last year involving an emotional outburst from Martin in an open plan office, witnessed by a person HuffPost spoke with. Two other sources had knowledge of the incident.
There were consistent accounts of Martin screaming at another elected officer in a way that was described as “uncontrolled” and “distressing” for all those present. “You have broken me,” she said. “Teflon ain’t Teflon no more.”
There was a stunned reaction in the room, the witness said, and an attempt to defuse the situation by Blake, who has led NUS’s senior management team since 2015.
We do not know if any complaints about the December 5th incident are among those now under investigation. Insiders said staff were horrified at how Martin had been treated, and other people HuffPost spoke to raised it as a symptom of wider problems currently facing the NUS, its senior management, and student leaders.
Safe spaces are for everyone but us
Current NUS officer
The NUS has long campaigned to make its own events open to all. It enforces strict “accessibility” measures to make conferences “safe spaces” for everyone who attends. But one current officer was scathing in their review of a concern they say stops at the doors of NUS HQ. “Safe spaces are for everyone but us,” they said.
“Other officers and staff members have told me that they are anxious, distressed, uncomfortable and feeling unsafe in the office,” a different officer said. “I’m at the point where staff members have to meet me at the tube station before I go in,” another said. “But this is the culture, it is not just one person,” one person added.
That culture, one current officer said, is allowed to flourish by a senior management team who are either unwilling or incapable of helping. “I don’t think there is a genuine investment into the health and wellbeing of officers,” they said. “I think they have neglected their safeguarding duty to a lot of officers.”
It’s a feeling backed up by independent assessors. Last year, the NUS asked the Runnymede Trust to complete a review into institutional racism which found: “Caution and distrust pervades, albeit to differing degrees and for different reasons, at all levels of the organisation.”
The Trust added: ”[T]here remains no doubt in our minds that NUS as an employer has failed to seriously support Black staff, officers and volunteers and has considerable work to do to address the poor understanding and engagement of race and racism amongst white staff and associates.”
An outcome of the review, one source said, was the creation of a whistleblowing service whereby people can remain anonymous when raising complaints and issues.
And NUS continues to struggle to tackle issues on social media, where many alleged incidences of harassment occur. It’s a problem raised by the people HuffPost spoke to time and time again. “The online situation is so bad, when you see these comments coming in again and again, it feels like this is no longer accountability it’s harassment, I would say,” Robbie Young, a current elected officer, who has been at NUS for four years, said.
It got quite nasty. It was toxic.
Former NUS staff member
NUS HQ is made up elected officers and staff. The role of NUS staff is likened to that of Whitehall civil servants and the officers to ministers. “Staff are supposed to be apolitical,” one ex-employee said.
Another former staff member said of their time at the organisation: “The politicisation of the staff there was exacerbated. There were a lot more silos between those who worked with specific elected officers. It got quite nasty. It was toxic.”
Staff would suffer the regular humiliation of having their work criticised by elected officers, but have no official means to respond. “Senior leadership have a responsibility to staff and to elected officers,” the same former staff member said. “They have a responsibility to their wellbeing. My personal experience is that that oversight, that intervention was lacking.
“It seems that a lack of staff support and lack of officer support seems to be continuing. I’d say that the focus on staff mental health is low down the list, sadly, and it’s a hypocrisy because the NUS is an organisation that does so much to get everyone involved and be accessible.”
The NUS said in its statement that it did safeguard its people: “We take the health and wellbeing of those that work for us seriously and any breaches of codes of conduct will be dealt with appropriately.”
I have been told my budget is cut…
Officer who represents marginalised students
The turmoil comes at a time when the NUS’s budgets have come under pressure. Public accounts reveal the NUS’s financial performance in recent years includes a more than £2m loss in its ill-fated digital arm, but people with knowledge of the union’s financial position said problems have continued elsewhere.
One problem, a source highlighted, is that as some unions disaffiliated with NUS politically as long as two years ago re-joined, they have chosen not to continue previous commercial deals, for example the group buying of alcohol. There’s a sense, the sources said, that commercial missteps are leaving the NUS with no option but to slash budgets for political activity.
It’s a situation that’s already led to anger and upset among those elected to represent specific groups, like women, disabled students, and black students, known as “liberation” campaigns.
“I have been told my budget is cut,” one officer, who represents a marginalised group under a liberation campaign, said. “I’ve been told that it’s because of disaffiliations and we’re under financial constraint. As a result we were told liberation would be targeted.”
A second officer said the reductions in budgets affected liberation campaigns and related conferences. It could possibly mean fewer dedicated events involving, for example, international students and those who identify as LGBT+.
But management sources disputed budgets were cut as a result of disaffiliations, and they pointed out all NUS budgets are set by the National Executive Committee, itself made up of elected representatives and therefore subject to accountability.
But while the current situation seems fraught, one former activist admitted they held out hope. “It might be hard to find a positive where people are hurting each other,” they said. “But I think that as it’s done before, the NUS and student unions can lead the way in finding solutions to these problems.”
CORRECTION: This post was corrected on January 31 to reflect the fact that HuffPost spoke with one witness of the alleged December 5 incident, while two further sources had knowledge of it.