News Editor Joseph Timan speaks to former Guild Officer Izzy Lenga ahead of her bid to be elected NUS VP for Welfare at national conference next week

Final Year Philosophy Student & Redbrick News Editor
Images by Izzy Lenga

Izzy Lenga’s campaign to become the National Union of Students (NUS) Vice President (VP) for Welfare is well under way with the NUS national conference, in which voting will take place, commencing on Tuesday 25th April. Lenga, who worked as Guild Education Officer in 2015/16, will be hoping to take over from current VP Welfare Shelly Asquith.

'Together we will fight the damaging cuts that this Government has made'

Lenga’s manifesto focuses on tackling the cost of student living crisis across the UK, increasing student service provision, and combating the rising incidents of hate crimes on university campuses. As well as studying Theology at the University of Birmingham (UoB), Lenga is part of the NUS National Executive Council (NEC), which acts as the elected governing body of the NUS and is made up of students across the UK.

Speaking about her plans if elected, Lenga said, ‘Our support services are under attack, hate crimes are taking place on our campuses, and students’ pockets continue to be squeezed through a crippling cost of living crisis.’

‘Together we will fight the damaging cuts that this Government has made to support services,’ she added, ‘and put the issues that matter to students at the top of their agenda.’

As well as VP Welfare, NUS delegates will be voting for several VP positions, as well as the next NUS President at the organisation’s national conference which runs from Tuesday 25th to Thursday 27th April. Lenga is currently up against one other candidate: Jenny Killin from Aberdeen University, who is the current Welfare Officer at her students’ union and sits on the NUS Welfare Committee.

Also going for an elected position at the NUS national conference is Jess Levy, the recently elected Representation and Resources Officer who will also be attending as an NUS delegate for the Guild. As well as running her one campaign, Levy will also be helping campaign for Lenga at conference this year.

Lenga has vowed to lead a campaign that puts student welfare back at the heart of the student movement

‘I can’t wait to help campaign for Izzy at this year’s national conference,’ she said, ‘she has been quite vocal in the student movement, pushing for sensible decisions on issues that affect the everyday lives of students and shut them out of reaching their potential in education.’

Birmingham has a historically played a leading role in the NUS, with two of the current full time elected officers, NUS President Malia Bouattia and VP Welfare Sorana Vieru, being Birmingham alumni. In addition to this, three members of the current National Executive Council having links back to UoB.

The NUS has, however, been a source of controversy this year, mainly revolving around former UoB student Malia Bouattia’s election as NUS President last year following allegations of anti-Semitism. Following her election at last year’s national conference, several students’ unions across the UK held referendums on NUS affiliation, with Loughborough, Hull and Lincoln all voting to disaffiliate.

Lenga has vowed ‘to lead a campaign that puts student welfare back at the heart of the student movement; above factionalism, above bureaucracy and above rows about tactics.’ Over the last year she has led on Anti-Racism, Anti-Fascism campaigns and co-convened a national conference addressing the issue of hate crimes that have increased on campuses, notably here at Birmingham where fascist graffiti has been found in the Guild on several occasions.

Redbrick spoke to Izzy to ask her about her campaign, policies and feelings towards NUS following recent controversy…

'As a victim of hate crime, this is something that is really personal to me'

Redbrick: Less than a week to go. How’s the campaign going so far?

Izzy Lenga: I think it’s going well! I’ve been having a great time hearing from loads of people about their ideas for the future of our welfare campaign and our movement. I’m now really looking forward to getting down to Brighton and meeting everyone! It’s obviously been quite difficult balancing the campaign with my degree and my dissertation, but I’m getting by!

Redbrick: How supportive have the Guild and other people at UoB been in your campaign?

Izzy Lenga: The Guild as always has been really supportive, in this election and in my previous two NUS election. A huge thanks needs to go to my officer team (2015-16) who’ve been with me every step of the way, and the current officer team who are always offering support, guidance and a great laugh whenever I need it.

People at UoB, particularly my Personal Tutor have been really supportive and I know that they’ll have my back like they have done over the past couple of years.

Redbrick: One of your policies is to tackle hate crimes on campus which has been a major cause for concern at UoB recently. How do you feel about the response at UoB to these incidents, and what do you think can be done nationally to tackle this problem?

Izzy Lenga: As a victim of hate crime, this is something that is really personal to me and I know it is for many others in the movement too. As hate crimes are rising on campus and in society, the NUS need to be doing a whole lot more to stamping out those who seek to create divisions and fear on university campuses. We need to ensure that SUs know what challenges minority groups face and what constitutes a hate crime directed at them in their eyes. Student unions need to be given toolkits, practical advice but most importantly support when an attack might occur on their campus or even in the building. These are all aspects of my campaign.

The situation at UoB has been really challenging and I’d like to thank the Uni and the Guild for all their support, in particular the department of Theology.

NUS needs to make it clear that every student regardless of race, gender, sexuality or religion, has the right to walk around their campuses free from fear and discrimination.

'I am committed to making mental health a priority for NUS and for students’ unions'

Redbrick: One of your policies is to make mental health a priority. Do you think UoB and the Guild have done enough on this front?

Izzy Lenga: Over the past few years, the Guild has taken huge strides in tackling the ongoing student mental health crisis and I was really proud to be able to play my part in supporting Ross in all the work that he was doing last year and he continues to do this year. Projects such as the ‘Mind Your Head Week’, ensuring compulsory welfare tutors and sufficient training for these tutors as well as creating strong links with the university’s support services has really made a visible and tangible difference for students’ lives on campus which has been incredible to see.

More students than ever are using these services and whilst this is of course because of the increased pressures and demands that students face every day, this is also testament to the Guild’s work of making these services more accessible. Of course, I do believe there’s significantly more work to be done, especially in tackling the root causes of the increase in mental health problems, but I’m proud of the work that the Guild and UoB have done in recent years.

And as VP Welfare, I am committed to making mental health a priority for NUS and for students’ unions in HE and FE. I’m planning to deliver a new mental health training programme, including a training Mental Health first aider on every HE and FE campus across the UK. NUS need to be offering better support to students and students’ unions and I want to lead that change.

Redbrick: Given that you were Education Officer at the Guild last year, what made you decide to go for Welfare instead of an education related role? And how will your experience as Education Officer help you in this role?

Izzy Lenga: Despite absolutely loving my year as Education Officer, it was so clear to see the impact of the work that I and all the other Sabbs had on students’ welfare and this is what drove me forward every day. From ensuring sexual harassment and assault was considered an extenuating circumstance, to pushing UoB to commit long-term funds & resources to address the BME attainment gap; from lobbying for better provision for religious students, to improving the lives of Postgraduate students on our campus, I was working on welfare issues all-day, every day.

It’s clear to see that student welfare issues play a huge part in all the other areas of NUS and student life in general. I want to be leading that work in our movement, supporting student unions, officers and students to tackle the day-to-day challenges that students are facing.

Redbrick: With all the controversy surrounding the NUS this year, including accusations of anti-Semitism on the part of the current President, as a member of the NEC and a Jewish woman, did you ever become disheartened with the organisation?

Izzy Lenga: It would be wrong to say that it hadn’t affected me and didn’t play a huge role in my decision to run for VP Welfare. The blog that I wrote in December prior to that month’s NEC meeting very much summed up my feelings at the time. I was fearful of being in the same room with many of the people who had been accused of making (or found to have made) anti-Semitic comments, and this severely affected my mental health. It was a particularly difficult time for me.

Later that month, a motion was put to UJS Conference about UJS cutting ties with NUS and I was really torn on how to vote on it. The motion fell because of the Jewish students who spoke passionately about the need to keep on fighting and to be in that room. I guess that month was the turning point for me because whilst there are people who make me feel unsafe as a Jewish woman within the student movement, in no way will I let them push me out. This really drove me to running for VP Welfare.

I want to stamp out this vile hatred so that Jewish students can have a voice and feel able to be in the room – it’s a driving passion of mine and I’ve made no secret of that during my time in the student movement.

'Birmingham was a founding member of NUS; we have a long and proud history with NUS and have always had strong representation in the national union'

Redbrick: Birmingham has historically been very involved in the NUS. Have you noticed in changes in this respect recently as a result of others feeling disheartened with the organisation?

Izzy Lenga: Birmingham was a founding member of NUS; we have a long and proud history with NUS and have always had strong representation in the national union. Unfortunately, and I think that this is a problem across all campuses in the UK, students are becoming more unaware of the work NUS is doing for them and we’re not much more than a discount card for many.

You only have to look at the number of referenda that have taken place across the UK in the last year to see how distant many students feel from the organisation. Straight after last year’s National Conference, an ‘idea’ was submitted for the Guild to disaffiliate when I was still a Sabb and had recently been re-elected the NUS National Executive Council.

Redbrick: You’re running up against one other candidate for VP Welfare. What makes you a better candidate?

Izzy Lenga: My manifesto has been driven by students, for students, and therefore I believe that we need a welfare campaign that is brought back into the hands of students and students’ unions, supporting them to tackle the day-to-day issues that students face. We need to take a pragmatic approach that provides solutions, not further problems, to the challenges that students are facing. Students’ unions have done incredible work on mental health, housing, interfaith, and everything in between – we need to be supporting this work in all SUs across HE and FE.

At a time when students are facing more and more pressures in their lives, we need a welfare campaign that takes action, both on our campuses and in our boardrooms. I’ll be the VP Welfare that brings together a divided student movement so that we can get to the point where we are winning again for students everywhere.

You can follow Izzy’s progress on Facebook, Twitter or even play a game on her website using the following links: