When Naa Acquah became General Secretary of the University of Manchester Students’ Union about a year ago, the institution was recovering from a slightly shaky period. There was concern within a particular group of students that the SU was limiting free speech on campus through censorship actions. The university’s newspaper, The Mancunion, had even run a front page story about the issue a few months before, and this reflected a growing conversation within the United Kingdom over “safe spaces” and “no platforming”.
Since taking over, Acquah and her team have maintained their loyalty to the culture of a safe space, but at the same time taken solid steps to improve the image of the union and the lives of students. The new democratic structure of the union has brought greater transparency and accountability – and means that if students are unhappy about something, they can democratically change it. By pursuing initiatives such as the “Gen Sec Surgeries”, Acquah has come into closer contact with the students she represents, giving her a more encompassing perspective over their needs and concerns. And just the mere fact that she accepted this interview is already a strong message of leadership. After all, it was in these pages that a few months back one of our writers compared the Students’ Union to “the fiercest authoritarian governments in the world”.
Acquah is a strong woman and proud leader who knows that an opinion is an opinion. She is committed to ending the controversies, even more so now that she has been reelected for a second term. In her ideal world, controversy can be replaced with solid debate, productive work and consequential change. We like the idea, and can only hope that this interview is one of many steps in that direction.
Our readers want to find out more about you but also about your views and perspectives on society. The topic of free speech, for example, is one which has been increasingly discussed at universities in the UK. What is your general opinion on the free speech debate as it is right now at our University?
I am a debater. I think free speech is a necessary condition to a functioning society and I don’t think there are many people that would disagree. I think it’s how we understand and interpret it that is the nuance of it. We say free speech when we don’t actually have paramount free speech in society. Someone couldn’t stand and shout horrendous racial slurs without them being arrested and it being classed as a hate crime.
So what could be the way forward?
We have to define what free speech is and what hate speech is. Society has been through dark times and we need to hear all people’s diverse opinions, but there has to be a line drawn between hate speech and free speech. Hate is dangerous and unacceptable. Hate speech demonises and antagonises other people. There are a lot of people losing their lives all over the world. We have to be mindful of everything currently happening. I get fearful of society. We are on a trajectory of demonising other people and it does affect people’s lives. No one ever comes in as an SU officer and says “I don’t want anyone to have free speech!”, but there has to be some kind of differentiation between the two.
At the beginning of last year, the Students’ Union decided to forbid the Free Speech Society from showing a particular edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine at the re-fresher’s fair. If you were the general secretary at the time, would you have made the same decision?
I remember this happening and I think I would have said that banning is a harsh route to go down. I would have sat down with the students that wanted to present the magazine and asked them if they’re sure they want to display it. It was clear to everybody that it could be perceived negatively. There is a lot of different students here and for one this might not be offensive, but for some it could be deeply hurtful. I do think it was the right decision to make a stand towards it. It’s not the environment you want to create for students. The environment that is being cultivated at the SU pivots around a safe space policy that seeks to protect individuals from any discriminatory harm.
Society has been through dark times and we need to hear all people’s diverse opinions, but there has to be a line drawn between hate speech and free speech.
Do you think that the safe space policy is a reflection of a wider political correctness problem?
I don’t think it is necessary political correctness. Nothing is ever politically correct. I think it does reflect a wider sense of attitude shifting and changes. Things that would have been acceptable ten or twenty years ago just aren’t anymore. That’s the natural progression! The things that were deemed acceptable to say to gay and lesbian people a decade ago were outrageous. We would call that out now in an instant. If that’s political correctness then I’m good with that.
In October, the Students’ Union once again decided to forbid an initiative of the Free Speech Society. This time, two speakers, Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos, were denied access to a debate on “feminism and liberation” because of comments they made in the past about feminism and transgender students. You were already general secretary at the time. Do you think the decision to ban these speakers was a step too far?
That was a really interesting time. Before the event, I had no idea who Julie Bindel or Milo Yiannopoulos were. When you read the safe space policy, it states that within the four walls of this union we want to create an environment in which everyone can feel open and safe. It’s to make sure people do not discriminate against specific characteristics such as race, gender, sexuality or trans status. When we have speakers who come in with this kinds of views, it becomes really difficult. It’s not particularly about agreeing or disagreeing with them - it’s about certain comments that were made about certain people having access to certain things.
What about those who disagree with the decision to ban the speakers?
Some people may disagree with the decision and I can see why they would. We’ve got quite a good process in place now with the policy that sees all instances like this being filtered through the senate, through the democracy of the union, to make sure that we are making the right decision. I’m hoping that next year this won’t be as big of an issue as it is now. I want to be able to stop talking about the safe space policy! I want the best speakers, who have really good arguments. Recently people have been invited here just for being controversial and not because they have any relevant argument to make. Having Katie Hopkins come here and speak about pretty much anything just feels wrong. Doesn’t she have an opinion just because she was on the apprentice and has since said mean things? She’s being paid to be controversial. We can do better than this. People with robust, strong arguments can come and speak, but we need to take a step back from this sense of charismatic controversy.
Do you think the Students' Union is accountable for the democratic decisions that are made?
When I ran, I was very much running on a platform that said the democracy needed to get better. There was hardly any accountability at the time, and I think we’ve gone through a really great period of change that has allowed us to redefine all of that. The senate currently has around 96 people on it, 20 of which are randomly selected students. The meetings that dictate the direction of decisions that are made are all well documented and available to view. We have a scrutiny committee of elected students that oversees all reports and makes sure that people do what they are elected to do. I really enjoy all of the accountability! Being held accountable is a good thing because it makes sure you are doing your job correctly. If I’m not doing what I should do, then I shouldn’t be here. I’m confident in my abilities, and transparency is part of the democratic status of the union. Perfect democratic structures do not exist, but we are definitely doing our best to get as close to perfection as we can.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has recently come under scrutiny for the election of Malia Bouattia, with many student unions across the country calling for disaffiliation from the group. What do you think of this?
We need a united student voice that says ‘no’. We need someone who will take action for us. I met Malia when I was campaigning to be elected last year. The black students’ campaign do this great thing where they go out and help any black student who is running for a position within student politics. Malia was one of the most hardworking activists I have ever met, she makes you have hope in things. I think the anti-Semitic comments that were made have given Jewish students every right to be concerned. I have said very clearly that she needs to give these students action to show she is a fearless anti-racism, anti-fascism campaigner and that Jewish students are as much as part of that as anybody else.
Will The University of Manchester ever see a referendum on NUS membership?
I don’t think it should. I’m not sitting here and saying the NUS perfect. I see some things that need changing and that I’ve been working on changing. A lot of people say that we want the main focus of the Students’ Union to represent the students to the institution and to the wider community. At The University of Manchester this would not be an impossible task to fulfil without the NUS. But for smaller unions across the country, a strong campaigning body who is able to go to the government and rigorously talk about students is needed to put them on the agenda.
Another issue that was widely discussed recently was the way the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) dealt with groups of homeless people seeking shelter beneath a bridge known as The Ark, for which it received a significant amount of criticism. If The University of Manchester had encountered a similar issue, would we have dealt with it in a better way?
There is something happening like that at our university. It isn’t as widespread or known about, but it exists. Close to London Road, just behind North Campus, there is a camp that resides on university land. We’ve worked with the university to be very clear that we do not want to happen here what happened to MMU. We had to inform the residents that the land is still owned by the university but rather than just remove the camp, we have been working with the local council and The Big Change to construct a homelessness charter that different organisations are signing up to. We’re working proactively with homelessness. Kicking these people off of the property does not help them.
Perfect democratic structures do not exist, but we are definitely doing our best to get as close to perfection as we can.
I also wanted to ask you about how you ended up in the position you are today – one of the most powerful positions within the student community. How were you as a student and why did you end up deciding to run for general secretary?
Well, in my first year I didn’t get very involved with the university but it was after my study abroad semester in Singapore that I saw things I was properly interested in. I saw all these incredible societies that everyone was a part of. Over there it was considered to be really strange if you weren’t involved in a sport or society. They had such an amazing school spirit that I wanted to carry back with me. When I came back I got a job at the union as a student staff member behind the bar. After that I pretty much fully saturated myself with things I wanted to do. Whilst I did my masters I became president of the Model United Nations society. By this point I’d seen a lot of Students’ Union executive teams come and go. I’d seen the Union go through a lot of changes, through a darker time of unsteadiness within itself that we’ve definitely left behind now. This place has really shaped who I am and the way I want to go about my life, and I’d love other people to have an opportunity like me. It should be the place you should be able to express ideas and passions that maybe you never even knew you wanted to express.
You are the first black female general secretary of our Students’ Union. Have you ever come across any challenges that stem from this?
I would never say there had been any overt challenges. One of the most interesting things has been when I’ve had continuous meetings with somebody and then one day they tell me they haven’t been able to speak to me all year because they had no idea how to pronounce my name. You don’t not speak to someone just because you can’t pronounce their name!
You are right! But I am sure there have been successes too…
Yes, a lot more black students have been getting involved and having their voice heard and getting more involved in campaigns in ways that they may not be able to in different parts of the country. Overall, there has been a lot more representation and a lot more participation. It just feels sad that this union has existed for 150 years and this is the first black female general secretary. So great, let’s celebrate it, but let’s keep this diversity as the standard. Our student body is diverse, so the union should be too.
How do you think being from a minority may affect your decisions that impact the majority?
I never ran the platform that says “I’m black, vote for me”. And I don’t think it negatively affects my ability to make decisions at all, I think it enables me to see the nuances in the arguments. Being in a minority lets me see how decisions affect minorities as well as majorities, something that somebody who exists outside of the minority may not be able to do.
This job would hint towards a political career. Is that something that you aspire to go into?
Not necessarily. I definitely would not go into party politics in this country. For a very long time this union churned out Labour MPs. I feel it’s very different now. I want to work in international relations. The classic “become an MP” has never set well with me. Maybe I’m wrong, ask me in ten years!