Thirty-eight years ago students across the world were in revolt. Sick of Vietnam, growing capitalism and filled with hope for a better way of doing things they tore up Paris, got shot at in Texas and went about in Kaftans. They organised sit-ins and asked companies why they did things the way they did. They boycotted. Barclays, Nestle, Tobacco companies all came under fire. For some thirty or so years, the image of the student was an ideologue, a dreamer, with the wisdom of reform inspiring thoughts of change, of a way of doing things better. To talk of a students’ union was to talk, not just of a union for students but a union of students, a peaceful army of protesters and shakers, ready to rock society at its roots and then infiltrate it to make a better world, learn from their predecessors and take the reigns for a new dawn.
However, the student has changed. History seemed to browbeat the would-be Che Guevara, the 1980s saw a generation of graduates not just getting stable professional jobs but getting very rich, very quickly. A massive expansion of the university system in 1992 opened universities to a broader population, with different expectations and aspirations. No longer could every student be expected to want enlightenment and revolution as ends in themselves.
With the image of the student went the image of the students’ union, the death of the sit-in spelt the death of the union battle cry and gradually students have come to be seen as consumers, paying for an education that is sometimes little more than training for a conventional and secure job. Postmodernity has ensured knowledge has to have performative or economic value and, now that students pay for a degree, that value had better be high. With these shifts in mind, Impact asks what the Students’ Union is for and whether it does what it is supposed to.
Aside from some simplification and a rosy-eyed view of history, I feel the gist of the opening paragraphs can be largely defended. This magazine has dealt with student culture before and it is a recurrent theme that students are less ideological, less political than they once were and increasingly pragmatic. Upon enrolling in the University, however, all Nottingham students are automatically members of the NUS and of the University’s own Students’ Union. The yellow NUS logo on your student ID knocks a couple of quid off the odd meal or cinema ticket here and there but what does your affi liation with the SU actually entail for you?
First off, how do democratic politics fi t into the picture? Members of the exec are elected on the basis of a personal manifesto that usually contains pledges to improve the whole of the student population. Do they get an opportunity to carry out their desired changes when they are elected to a role that is largely already defi ned and which has specifi cations for practice that fi ll the job? This may be the source of some of the apathy that is seen around election times. Every exec is the same, runs the argument, why bother voting when the work will be done by whoever gets elected? Well the importance of the democratic process remains close to the heart of the Students’ Union and the members of its executive. President Mike Baxter sums up a value that is core for the body he heads, “Having a union that is run by students for students is paramount. The elected offi cers really do shape the Union, but they must take their direction from members otherwise they are acting without their consent.” It is only with a full and democratic process that the jobs people are elected to do get done at all. Without an electorate there is no longer likely to be a Student Run Services Offi cer, let alone one who wants to widen their appeal and improve their quality. In spite of a busy and demanding working life there is still room for individuality. Chrystyna Chymera General Secretary for the SU told Impact, “Although you easily get bogged down in all the nitty-grit stuff and reports you have to write, yes there is time to make a difference.”
What though, is that difference? Each executive member makes a series of pledges before they get elected. These, presumably, are the key to getting a position. If the electorate have approved your ideas as a candidate then they will elect you. Unfortunately there are a number of problems with this. To begin with, no candidate will ever be elected twice (actually a non-sabbatical officer can be elected to a sabbatical position but this never happens in practice) so despite their elected status, an officer won’t be held accountable after their year in office, as they simply can’t be re-elected. With this in mind, in theory, no officer ever has to fulfil their pledges. The situation has led some to think of executive elections as a personality contest where people get elected by their friends or for flippant reasons such as looks, name or gimmicks. Be that as it may, the same can be said of any electoral process. People affiliate themselves with parties in national elections on the basis of single issues, isolated failures and successes and even historical or familial association with a group or party. This lack of true accountability has serious repercussions if University voting figures are to be believed. The most recent SU election has seen another pitiful turnout, with just 21% of the University’s students mustering up enough energy to vote. Current president Mike Baxter cites the 5824 people ballot as a triumph, and it is the highest of its kind in the country, but relatively this is a woeful showing. With one member of the election committee resigning because of an apparent distaste for the organisation’s arcane procedures and perceived lack of relevance to the student body, it seems like it might be time for a re-assessment.
The new position of the SU (and of those at other universities) reflects a decline of the political at a broader scale. This is evidenced in the concerns of a recent report from The Power Inquiry, headed by Baroness Kennedy and embraced by Gordon Brown. The report took as its starting point the problem that modern citizens vote less and appear apathetic, and set out a raft of proposals to change it. The Inquiry’s proposed solution to the decline of involvement was to increase the ways people can actually get involved. A series of proposed changes in the way citizens interact with the government were outlined, including Proportional Representation and more information for voters. The concern is mirrored in the SU here at Nottingham who heavily promote interaction and engagement with elections, including the introduction of new measures to increase participation, including an electronic voting system. However well meaning, the report failed to get at a fundamental change in the way we see ourselves in relation to the state and its institutions. Citizens are being replaced by consumers. We consume health services and we consume public transport. A mixture of private finance initiatives and devolved managerial control has encouraged people to engage with complaints, phone calls or simply withdrawal of custom where once they communicated with votes. Students consume too, a university education that currently costs around £3,500 and is set to get more expensive. Of course it’s not just a degree that we buy, other things are on offer as well, and here is where the SU come in. We all bear a consumer relationship with our SU who play a large part in providing services like parties, shops and involvement in societies and organisations. In effect, the things that keep us busy before we all go out and get jobs. The current treasurer Dan Baker points out that a large part of his responsibility is running commercial services, “I chair the Board of Directors for UNU Services Ltd., the company that runs the four SU shops, The Ark, the Print Shop and the Travel Shop.” Meanwhile, two positions on the executive committee of Nottingham’s SU exist entirely to ensure involvement services are well organised and democratically run: Student Run Services officer and Societies Officer. The Students’ Union is a largely non-ideological body but this does not make it a non-political one. So why is a premium put on old fashioned political involvement as an end to itself?
The reason is that it is still an important benchmark for a pluralistic society and acts as a guard against dictatorial, unwanted or harmful policy decisions. To use a sense of disenfranchisement as an excuse for a lack of engagement is dangerous because the NUS is still a political body. The job they do, however different it may be from some expectations, has repercussions right down through the everyday life of a Nottingham student. Prices in The Ark and the Students’ Union shop, budgetary decisions regarding student societies are all run by students or former students. Meanwhile, the Environment and Social Justice Committee is currently investigating ways to improve recycling on campus and possible ways of changing the banks who are allowed to rent space on the sites in the Portland Building. Furthermore, the NUS has a national lobby and it is the actions of representatives sent by individual universities that decide what questions get asked and what pressure applied. Even with this kind of one-term no-party democracy, the Union’s executive members are still held accountable by council and referenda are held when unforeseen major issues are being addressed.
Perhaps the current state of affairs is a good thing. If the above analysis is correct then political apathy arises when people have a vague sense that everything is alright. For the majority of people at the University and even in Britain, this is indeed the case. Unfortunately, things won’t necessarily be alright forever. For this reason democratic channels, such as those provided by the SU executive elections, need to be kept open and available through active use and constant promotion.
I think that apathy is due to a complete lack of a need to engage. Students can be largely contented with the status quo as it helps many. The status quo means variable top-up fees implicitly excluding some students from university places, it means a decline in the importance of the SU vote and it means an increase in the importance performative knowledge, which can be determined by political ideology and the market, leading to a reduced emphasis on less ‘valuable’ degrees.
Political engagement means a kind of fight for truth and a drive for doing the best thing. When the best thing means the best for the government or the companies that sponsor research, we run the risk of neglecting to embrace the big issues facing the world and becoming blind to the shifting balance of power.