Qasim Hussain

Vice president (further education), National Union of Student

'We just want to learn, have enrichment and an enjoyable time at college. Is that too much to ask?'

Qasim Hussain begins a two-year term as NUS’ vice president (further education) today. He tells Shane Chowen that supporting his peers ignited a passion for student politics

With much of the country alight with anticipation of a new government, Qasim Hussain has been far more concerned with the day-to-day issues his fellow students at Leeds City College face. 

But today, the 19-year-old will swap campaigning on local issues such as college mental health services and creating societies for non-English speaking students, to get ready to face off against ministers in a brand new government.

If this week’s general election goes as expected, an incoming Labour government will be faced with a softly-spoken new NUS vice president for further education who is on top of his brief and on top of his arguments to win for students.

His two-year term in post begins on Monday, taking over from Bernie Savage who is off to train as a primary school teacher.

Our interview takes place in the canteen at Leeds City College’s Printworks campus, one of many sites frequented by Hussain in his current role as students’ union (SU) president.

Amid the hustle and bustle of, mostly staff at this point, preparing to end the college year, our chat comes to a brief pause when he reveals he was starting primary school in 2009 when I was elected to the NUS office he’s about to take. (Reader – I needed a minute).

Education long-Covid

Hussain is among the so-called ‘Covid-generation’ of young people whose formative secondary education years were thrown into the organised chaos that was last-minute online learning and teacher-assessed exams. 

Some of that, although not obvious to him at the time, worked in his favour. 

When his 2021 teacher-assessed GCSE results were released, grade inflation meant his first-choice sixth-form college was oversubscribed. By the time the college told him, the day before enrolment, he had already rejected an offer to stay on at his school’s sixth form, so was left with his final choice of leaving his hometown of Bradford for Leeds City College. 

But even contemplating those post-school education options was nearly off the table altogether as Hussain was suspended twice in secondary school and at times struggled to balance his education with caring for his disabled father. 

He openly admits to “very nearly becoming one of the rising number of NEET (not in education, employment or training) young people”.  

Hussain’s first few years at secondary school were a struggle. He recalls being bullied on the council estate where he lived from age 11 and lashed out at school, where he was first placed in the bottom set, and had “no clear plan” for his future.

An illness on a visit over one Christmas to Pakistan, where he was born, delayed his return to his year 8 studies and his school kicked him out for several months. Later he was placed in the school’s exclusion unit for getting into a fight. 

It was being faced with “primary school maths work” in the exclusion unit where “something clicked”.

“I thought, what am I doing? This isn’t me. Clearly, I’ve messed up. I acknowledged what went wrong and how I could improve. And honestly from there, for the rest of year 8 and going into year 9, I was improving my behaviour, improving the people I’m with and then improving my grades.”

In year 9 he was in “mid-table” sets for his classes. Maths, to his surprise, became his strongest subject, which he says was because “it was a subject I hated the most but got to understand how important it is in day-to-day life”. History and geography also helped him to “become invested in my curriculum”.

A lot of learners now in their first or second years are quite constrained and keep themselves to themselves

Getting his place at Leeds City College was an opportunity for even more reinvention. There were closer FE colleges he could have chosen, but he wanted out of Bradford where he felt there was a risk of “being around the wrong people again”.

“I knew, I’m going to go to college in Leeds and I’m going to become someone different. Fresh start. New book. Probably the best decision I’ve ever made, really.”

Hussain at Leeds City College Printworks campus

As head of the students’ union at Luminate Education Group (which runs Leeds City College), Hussain sees the impact of “traumatic Covid experiences” among students he represents, with details that were easy to overlook amid the noise at the time around exams and grading algorithms.

“People lost interaction with their teachers and their peers…people lost loved ones. It’s evident if you ask colleges; a lot of learners now in their first or second years are quite constrained and keep themselves to themselves. That’s probably because they’ve lost that period where they would have socially thrived.”

He tells how the college has put in place services for younger students presenting more severe behaviour issues, which he knows, as a governor alongside his role as president, “isn’t always financially positive for the college”.

Stepping up to lead

It was partly seeing the impact of Covid on his peers that put him on the path to student leadership. His first step was becoming a course rep, where issues included long queues in the canteen (“everyone’s lunch hours were timetabled at the same time”). 

But it was “giving something back for students having a rough time” and wanting to “get involved in something outside of the curriculum” that inspired him to take the next step and stand for election with the students’ union. 

“I wanted to learn more about the college, the processes, how it worked. Plus handling local college issues like wi-fi and canteen prices. But a lot of students felt like they didn’t have a voice. I wanted to be that voice.”

Hussain recalls being encouraged by teachers and support staff at the college, and hesitantly admits that his passion for representing students overtook his interest in his A Levels. 

The gearshift from first to second-year student, the SU role and caring for his father at home took its toll, to the point where Hussain began to “fear” for his mental health. 

“I got a bit behind on coursework deadlines, lost motivation and didn’t feel like attending any more.”

A sociology lecturer intervened, and Hussain again tried to knuckle down. It was the realisation that university could wait, if he really wanted to go, and that he was “probably more interested in student politics” that helped him regain his focus, but perhaps not in the direction his teachers were expecting. 

“I understood what went wrong for me and I just wouldn’t want that to happen for others. I knew that further education is so broad, and students are ambitious, but they might fall into the same traps where they get demotivated, lose focus and feel like it’s over for them. But it isn’t.”

Leeds City College is one of just a handful of colleges in England where the role of students’ union president is a full-time paid sabbatical post.

He won the election, seeing off six other candidates, winning over 3,000 votes, and took office after passing his A Levels. 

Tackling loneliness

Hussain honed in on student loneliness as one of his priorities and sought to bolster the SU’s student societies offer. He knew mental health and loneliness were particular issues among the college’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) community, so set up dedicated groups for Arabic and French-speaking students with limited budgets to organise trips and activities. 

“We wanted to make sure our SU team is accessible to those least likely to come and talk to us. We’re not going to offer mental health support ourselves because we’re not qualified, but we can make sure that enrichment is taking place.”

There was “only one case” in his presidential term where he recalls his SU team falling out with college management. 

As the death toll in Gaza started to rapidly escalate following Israel’s response to the attacks on October 7, Hussain found himself between the college “having to stay in the middle” and students demanding a more pro-Palestine stance.

“The situation in Gaza is affecting so many young people right now. Social media is so accessible so it’s constantly on young people’s phones. 

“When things were getting worse, we felt that we had to put up a statement in solidarity with our students; that we understand how they’re feeling and to make sure there was support and space for them.”

Hussain says the college made its own statement, but it was criticised by some learners for being “too neutral”.

“As you can imagine, like loads of businesses, colleges, obviously, for reasons, have to kind of stay in the middle. So they can’t say ‘we support Palestine’ because it seems there can be consequences of that if it’s taken the wrong way. And in a college you really need to make sure you’re representing the views of everyone because there’s going to be different feelings about it.”

His SU set up a Students United for Palestine Society, which is now their biggest student-led society by far with 225 members.

“When we opened that space, students felt like they could talk about the issue safely. At first we had to kind of understand the college’s position a bit more; they explained it to us and we understood. I wouldn’t say we were in disagreement. We issued our own statement, which was a slightly different view.”

Reconnecting NUS with FE

Hussain speaking at NUS liberation conference

Going to college board meetings was “one of the scariest things I went into” but now he’s coming to the end of his term as a student governor, Hussain’s grasp of college finances puts him in good stead in his upcoming campaigns on education funding. 

Hussain decided to stand for NUS vice president after getting “really excited” spending a day at an event with other FE student leaders last year. At one time, it would have been an NUS event that brought them together, but NUS’ presence in the FE sector has gradually dwindled in the last few years as it wrestles with its own financial issues. 

The event was the Festival of Student Governance, organised by youth leadership charity Unloc and hosted by the Association of Colleges. 

When the Conservatives dramatically cut ties with NUS in 2022 over antisemitism allegations, an FE Week investigation found there already wasn’t any meaningful engagement between them on FE issues. 

NUS’ abandonment of the student leadership space in FE has left the union “disconnected” and “inaccessible”, Hussain’s manifesto said. He wants to “rebuild confidence and trust” in NUS among its FE members when he takes office on Monday. 

Part of that will be a seat at the table in discussion about the sector’s future. Hussain says he’s “inspired” by the idea of working with organisations such as the Association of Colleges “to bring college leaders, staff and students together to talk about what FE might look like in years to come”.

‘No to more austerity’

Hussain is not a fan of Rishi Sunak’s idea for a modern form of national service, compelling 18 year olds to take part in community volunteering or military service. 

Youth services have had funding taken away, teachers are losing their jobs

Hussain says if Sunak had consulted with young people before announcing the policy, the prime minister would have had better ideas to get his desired outcome.

“You need to understand what students want. Yes there’s a huge lack of skills in the UK. That’s your fault! Apprenticeships are not funded properly, FE is not funded properly. Youth services have had funding taken away, teachers are losing their jobs.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer also shouldn’t expect an easy ride if he moves into Number 10 on Friday. 

“Young people tend to vote Labour, and young people’s voices need to be central to Labour’s plans for further education, whether that’s on the curriculum or what to do about the Advanced British Standard. And we need to be there to say no to more austerity.

“What students need, and I’m talking about further education specifically, they want to be confident in their leaders, they want to come to college, to learn the course, have enrichment, and have an enjoyable time. It’s not too much to ask, is it?”

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