Mensah speaks out about NUS Black Students’ Conference

Sam Harrison 31 May 2016

CUSU President Priscilla Mensah has made a series of criticisms of the recent NUS-linked Black Students’ Conference (BSC).

In a post on Facebook, she muses on an epithet that she apparently earned at the conference, “that girl from Cambridge who won’t stop talking”, and makes ten points criticising the conduct of the conference.

First among these was the treatment of students who had advocated a motion to end the use of the term ‘black’ as an umbrella for multiple ethnicities, whom Mensah alleges were subjected to “silencing, harassment and bullying”. This episode also contributed Mensah’s second criticism, that the meeting was badly chaired and that democratic procedures seemed to be abused in order to overturn the motion in question.

She further objects to excessive praise of Malia Bouattia, which included an amendment formally lauding the controversial president-elect, especially in light of the conspicuous absence of similar appreciation for Vice President of Further Education Shakira Martin. Mensah also accuses fellow delegates of meeting points like hers with disapproval for any dissent which might risk undermining the conference.

In response to a motion calling for blanket opposition to proposed Higher Education reforms, Mensah suggests that more nuance was necessary in the conference’s approach, since one of the provisions in the reforms demands that universities increase their BME intake to 20%, which she argues “is directly relevant to the BSC”. Her reaction to a motion regarding the contentious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is similar, though she provides no detail of the wording.

Other criticisms focused on the conduct of the conference itself. Mensah alleges that the conference behaved as if “access to Oxford and Cambridge [is] less important” and endorsed a speech from an Oxford delegate asking the BSC not to “demonise BME Oxford and Cambridge students on the grounds that our institutions are elitist.” The other point of conduct that Mensah raises regards the election of Aadam Muuse, an ally of Malia Bouattia, as Black Students Officer in what Mensah calls “a clear display of establishment politics”, for the reason that he was openly supported by the structures of the NUS.

Mensah concludes her post by saying that she requested an apology from Muuse for not having supported black candidates in the national NUS elections of this year, an apology which was not forthcoming, and that she was denied an access half minute for her speeches by the chair on two occasions.

Mensah did not wish to issue an entirely damning verdict on the BSC or the NUS, saying that the former “has done so much great work in the past, continues to do great work, and needs to do better.” She encouraged first-time delegates at BSCs to pursue their own criticisms regardless of the reaction they receive, adding, “dissent from the majority opinion in that space does not make me right wing, a sell-out or a blind follower of white supremacy.”

The statement comes after criticism of the Black Students’ Conference, as details of certain motions made their way into the public sphere. The NUSceptics movement, which campaigns for student unions to disaffiliate from the NUS, has recently castigated a motion passed by the conference to abolish prisons, and drawn attention to another motion regarding deportations which it alleges calls for training on how to stop a chartered flight.

Details of the former motion also featured in the Daily Mail on Monday, along with the voting down of the motion to which Mensah made reference to specify the term ‘black’. Others have objected to the decision of the Conference to permit participants to identify as “politically black”.

Nonetheless, one attendee spoke very highly of the event, writing, “Inspired: Very proud to be a guest here at #nusblack16 Conf. Amazing speakers & sessions.”

The Conference is an annual event held to make the policy of the Black Students’ campaign, to scrutinise the work of its officials, and to elect its executive. This year, 505 motions were discussed over two days, 28 and 29 May. The Conference featured Guardian journalist Gary Younge as its keynote speaker, and also presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

On the NUS website, the Black Students’ campaign describes itself as “the largest constituency of Black students in Europe and students of African, Asian, Arab and Caribbean descent, at a local and national level on all issues affecting Black students” and cites its priorities as “equality in education, black representation, anti-racism and anti-facism [sic] and international peace and justice.”

The campaign is not unaccustomed to dealing with contentious issues. It has campaigned strenuously against the government’s Prevent strategy, which it accuses of “deepening discrimination against Muslims”, and it has also been an ardent defender of Bouattia, dismissing media criticism of her controversial statements about Zionism as “false accusations in the media”.