The SU Executive: Representative of the student body?

You cannot deny that the nine members of the new Students’ Union Executive deserve their place. Throughout two weeks of campaigning, where candidates were expected to campaign day and night over different campuses and out in town, all of the elected candidates put themselves out there and really made a case for their inclusion in the SU Executive. Some of them won due to well-thought out promises, others inevitably for their style of campaigning.

It is interesting to note, however, that despite the best efforts of the Students’ Union there is still a remarkably unbalanced feel to this year’s Executive. There are currently three females and six males on the current Executive; next year, that will drop to two females, with one of those being the sole part-time non-sabbatical position of ESJ and the other, ironically, the role of Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer. Next year, there could potentially be only one female officer, holding the part-time, non-sabbatical position of Environment and Social Justice Officer. While Katie Mackay had been elected to the Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer position, this has been thrown into the air by a successful appeal by former candidate John Smith*.

This could be taken as proof that female participation is underwhelming – the fact that ¾ of candidates running for executive positions at the start of the elections period were men appears to support this. It is also a worrying thought that the four positions that are arguably the most responsible (as they become trustees of the University for seven years after they leave office) – the roles of President, Finance, Education and Democracy and Communications – have all been won by male candidates. The absence of international and ethnic minority students elected to Executive positions only serves to further highlight the problem.

This is not, however, for lack of trying by the SU Exec. Current Democracy and Communications Officer Dave Hind explains, “There has been an increase in women standing for the elections, but unfortunately the demographics of the executive don’t match up with this. We would obviously like to see a more balanced demographic but, despite this, I’m sure that it will not prove detrimental”.

George Wright, officer-elect for the Democracy and Communication position for 2010-11, pursues a similar line of thought, “What I think needs to happen is not necessarily more publicity but better publicity through the right channels and networks. I think that our SU Exec needs to reflect the diverse student body that it represents, not just in gender but in every respect; age, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, everything. For this to happen we obviously need a more diverse set of candidates”.

Statistics detailing previous Executives hardly paint a sympathetic picture towards the role of women on the SU Executive. With the exception of 2004-5 (the only year in the previous decade to have a majority of women on the Executive) there has been a steady decline in the number of women winning elections, from 50% representation in 2001-2 to this year’s meagre 22%. This could be partly attributed to fewer positions being available in the last two elections than before. Yet it doesn’t explain why, when more women are standing, fewer are actually being elected to office.

Katie Mackay, who had been elected to Equal Opportunities and Welfare, was in a position with responsibilities which have traditionally been dominated by female candidates. (Dan Downes, the current officer, is the only male to hold this role in the last ten years). She believes that “to address the case in aiming to increase participation of female, international and BME students, increasing awareness and empowering such groups to run in the election would be a good start”. She goes on to say, “If I gave an answer now it would be speculating. It is something that I need to look into by way of gaining feedback from students themselves and acting in response to this”.

Whatever the solution, it is clear that the Union still has work to do if it is to truly consider itself representative of us all.

Ben McCabe 

*Name changed to protect students’ identity.

25 Comments on this post.
  • Elizabeth ‘egg’ Goddard
    29 April 2010 at 10:07
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    The message of this article is very important and clearly some excellent research has been done but I think a couple of very important points have been overlooked.

    Firstly, nowhere do you mention the existence of the Representational Officers. These 7 positions (Women’s, BME, LGBT, Disabled, International, Postgrad and Mature) were created (or reintroduced/reorganised) for the 2008/9 year in order to tackle the lack of diversity and ensure minority/under-represented groups have a voice within our SU. If individuals from minority/under-represented groups aren’t being elected onto exec, they DO still have a voice within the SU through their respective Rep Officers. Whilst it’s true that Rep Officers are not Executive Officers, they are able to form excellent working relationships with Exec and really make a difference. For example, I helped Dave Hind with the campaign to encourage more women to run in our SU elections and have received personal feedback that the campaign was a success in actually achieving its aim.

    Secondly, whilst you say only 25% of SU Exec candidates this year were women, it’s up from 16% last year, and for this reason I consider the above campaign a success. Furthermore, the percentage of women running for non-Exec positions this year increased from 16% to 60% . This is a significant increase and I am confident (as has happened in the past) that a number of these candidates will go on to run in the SU Exec Elections in the future. I really do think/hope this year is the absolute low point for women being elected to our SU Exec.

    Of course there is more that can be done, by both Exec AND Rep Officers, but I am confident that if joint efforts continue things will start to look up. Just need to put our heads together and work out how to get a more diverse range of students elected (and not just as candidates)!

    Elizabeth ‘egg’ Goddard
    Women’s Officer

  • Rob
    29 April 2010 at 14:44
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    “better publicity through the right channels and networks.”

    Doesnt George Wright’s comments suggest that somehow women, international students and other identities under-represented on the Exec aren’t involved in the SU. That somehow they are seperate and need to be encouraged and targeted to stand or get involved. It suggests that its the nature of women or international students that mean they dont get involved enough in the SU. When in fact women and international students are quite involved with the SU already. The groups arent the problem, surely it must be some other complex reason to under represntation.

    Secondly the Exec isnt always going to be proportional to some arbitary identity. There are many reasons why some candidates are elcted than others. Obviously it makes sense to have positions that specifically deal with liberation campaigns or specific aspects of our SU make up. Like for example having an international students officer ensures that specific issues relating to international students are not forgotten etc. However i dont necessarily see the need to the Exec to be balanced on grounds of gender, ‘race’, sexuality or other arbitary distinction. I believe a competant person can represent my educational needs despite thier identity. The only thing that is a little odd is that you would expect, all things being equal (which may not be true), you would rougly have a proportionate amount of candidates standing according to gender, ‘race’ and other things.

    If someone can actually give me a specific account as to why this isnt the case, I would be gratefull to hearing it.

  • Privately Educated Student
    30 April 2010 at 10:57
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    This comment has been removed due to an offensive remark within.

  • Privately Educated Student
    30 April 2010 at 13:18
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    Why have you removed this comment? In what way was it offensive?!

    What happened to free speech?

  • Ben McCabe
    21 May 2010 at 09:07
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    @ Elizabeth ‘egg’ Goddard

    While I understand your point that Representative Officers are not mentioned in this article, this is an article about the SU Exec (as can be seen from the title). This is in no way meant to sideline the achievements of the Rep Officers, instead to focus on the people who are the figureheads of our SU, and who will be the first representatives of the Students’ Union to whom first years will be introduced to in September. For this reason I chose to focus on the Executive rather than the Representative Officers.
    Secondly, you point out that there has been an increase from 16% to 25%. I consider this a good thing, but not enough. More can and should be done to encourage female participation and I for one do not believe a number as low 25% to be a cause for celebration. This is not trying to dismiss the efforts of the SU, far from it. I realise that this is a very difficult thing to try and resolve but that does not mean that we should become complacent and believe that an increase is enough.
    It is clear that there should not be interference on who is elected (the best candidate should win, after all) it would be nice to see a more equal ballot paper, if only to give students more choice when it comes to deciding who will be seen to represent them.

  • Scott Perkins
    21 May 2010 at 19:26
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    Nice article Ben, but I think another point that has been missed is the amount of people on this and next year’s exec that have been privately educated.
    Whilst I am not against private education, I feel that the numbers on the exec are in no way representative of the student body.
    I’m not going to speculate why; all of the exec have been democratically elected. However, surely it is a worrying statistic that over three-quarters of next years exec will hail from private schools. Just under a third of students at the uni have received private education.

  • Daniel Cooper
    22 May 2010 at 11:20
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    @Scott Perkins

    I’d suggest the overwhelming reason is that those who are here on a financial wing and prayer simply can’t afford to dedicate time to building up the CV required to run. Look at the experience of previous exec – JCR experience, NUS delegate, an SRS or two. Try fitting that around a part time job and a degree.

  • Rob
    22 May 2010 at 12:41
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    @Scott Perkins

    Are we seriously going to find every little thing about ‘identity’ and claim that somehow because someone went to private school they are not representative of the student body? Hey, why dont we just have a quota system, lets make sure our exec is rounghly representative of peoples height, shoe size, religion, how sexually experienced they are, which way they voted in the general election, where they live geographically in the country, town or city, what football team they support, and so on and so on.

    As I said earlier, it is odd that we dont get more women running for election, but the reason behind this is obviously quite complex, not one that can simply be fixed, but also this obssession with the ‘identity’ of our exec is damaging, i really dont care if yu have a vagina, penis, both or none, i dont care whether you’re priviledged or not. I care about what you think, what you say your going to do and your character, then I’ll decide if people can represent others.

  • Dave Jackson
    22 May 2010 at 15:00
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    The question of whether people are representative is not whether they went to the same kind of school, are the same gender or have the same creed and colour as those they are representing, it’s their ability to do the job.

    If next year’s exec are incapable of representation (which I believe is only a fraction of their full job anyway) – it’s because they are bad at representation, not because they’re from private school. I don’t for a minute assume that somebody is incapable of representing me because they’re from a state school, an ethnic minority, or because they aren’t the same gender as me – I care only for their ability to do the job.

    Besides, these people are elected – it’s not as if there’s a giant conspiracy to get the privately educated into senior SU roles. I don’t know what’s being insinuated, but it’d be one hell of a scoop.

  • Charlie
    22 May 2010 at 19:36
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    Why does everything appear to be “worrying”? I’m not worried about it. It’s not as if we’ve got fascists there – or blind albino penguins for that matter.

    Christ! They’re male and went to independent schools! Aarrrrggh! My nails are down to the base with worry.

    Chill out. Jeez.

  • Anthony pseudoSmith
    23 May 2010 at 02:43
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    Scott Perkins you have had a massive fail
    you picked out private school…
    What about religion or ethnicity? They are all WASPS! The most diverse on the exec is Margolis, and he’s Jewish….what does that say?

  • Scott Perkins
    23 May 2010 at 11:25
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    @Anthony, @Rob All I am trying to do is highlight different ways in which we can say they are truley representative. The title of the article asks if the SU are representative of the student body, yet it has only focused on one issue, yet as Anthony pointed out, there are loads of other aspects that haven’t been examined. Private schools were only one of many factors I could have used.
    Like Dave, I don’t care who the people who get the job are. As long as they do the job well (this years exec have done excellently after the farce of last year), I don’t care. I wish next years team the best of luck.

  • Lucy Hayes
    24 May 2010 at 10:07
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    @Daniel Cooper: “I’d suggest the overwhelming reason is that those who are here on a financial wing and prayer simply can’t afford to dedicate time to building up the CV required to run… Try fitting that around a part time job and a degree.”

    Surely that’s a little simplistic? While using myself as an example is probably not that ‘representative’ of all in a similar financial situation, but unfortunately I don’t know the details of anyone else’s finances! Due to my family’s income banding I qualify for the full loan and grant and am automatically eligible for the University bursary. Theoretically no one should have to go through uni on “a wing and a prayer” thanks to these financial support networks. I also have a part time job and have worked as a volunteer for various different organisations throughout uni, and I’ve been Editor of Impact this year. I’m not wonderwoman and I’m sure many people from poorer backgrounds have similarly full or more impressive CVs.

    Dave Jackson has a valid point that all these people were democratically elected so it’s not like we’re looking for a huge conspiracy here. My point is just that you may be looking in the wrong place for the reason for the lack of students from state school backgrounds on the exec. Perhaps there’s just a certain type of person who finds a role on the exec appealing – which is of course what this article is looking to address!

  • James
    24 May 2010 at 10:36
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    There is a very real issue about the lack of diversity in the exec and, more importantly, on the lack of diversity in candidates running for the exec. The vast majority of candidates running for exec positions where white, middle-class and, generally, privately educated.

    This does not, of course, impringe on their ability to do the job which they’ve been elected to do but there is a real issue about the lack of candidates from other backgrounds in this election. Why arn’t they standing? Is it because they feel that they can’t get elected or because they don’t get involved in the SU? Either way thats a major issue which we need to try and address to make our SU truely representive (and no, I’m not trying to suggest that the current exec can’t represent everyone).

    I wish them all the best of luck but we’re closing our eyes if we think that their isn’t an issue here.

  • Philip Whitehead
    24 May 2010 at 11:27
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    Here here, Dave Jackson. We should never confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. There were (rightly) no stipulations on gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, public/state schooling, religion or political affiliation attached to running for the SU Exec. No candidate was unfairly disadvantaged on the basis of any of these.

    It is faintly ridiculous to suggest that it is therefore some kind of scandal that there aren’t more “insert-chosen-subgroup-here”s on Exec. So what? It doesn’t necessarily hinder their ability to represent their constituents. What a perverse kind of sexism it would be to suggest only a woman can represent the needs of women students; or racism to suggest only an Asian can represent Asian students; or bigotry to suggest only a State-schooled Exec officer can represent students who went to State schools. Enough divisive identity politics, please!

  • Rob
    24 May 2010 at 12:05
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    Indeed Identity Politics suck the massive big one!
    Also, no one has ever answered my initial post and given me a decent explaination as to why the candidates standing arent roughly proportional. Honestly, how the hell can you ’empower’ groups or ‘increase participation’ if you dont know what the problem or barrier is, or recognize there even is one, as last time I looked SU policy never barred anyone from standing. Please, can anyone, anyone at all who keeps harping on about peoples ‘identity’ give a plausible, well thoughout explaination as to why there is an unequal ammount of males standing at election compared to females?

  • Rob
    24 May 2010 at 12:11
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    @Antony pseudoSmith-
    Im guessing thats a sarcastic post, because if it isnt then actually you had the oh so current ‘massive fail’. Actually schooling is more important in some respects, as it represents Class, which is by far the most important reason for disadvantage, poor white men have it worse off than a rich black women, for example, so their waspishness is really secondary to debate. And religion! Religion, what the hell has that got to do with anything? Might as well asjk them what football team they support, for all the importance that has, no one on campus is unfairly treated because of their religion, in fact religion is more likely to be over represented and marked out for priviledge.
    As I said, I hope your post was sarcastic

  • anthony pseudoSmith
    25 May 2010 at 16:20
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    Yes, it was sarcastic. Perhaps we should be looking at the candidates, not the exec. The exec were chosen out of 3, sometimes up to six candidates for each position. Presidential candidates included an ethnic minority, who ran a fantastic campaign. Education included two women, FSO – Chloe Painter, Activities – Lawrence Bolton and Candice, the list goes on. Next years exec were elected (yes the turnout was poor) but not without the option for women and ethnic minorities in each category.
    So is our lack of diversity more institutionalised? Should we be pressing the Uni for diverse students? Of course not. This year seems to be the exception, not the rule. The candidates were chosen because they secured the most votes. They ran because they stood a good chance. I do not consider background, race, wealth or class and factor in stipulating a candidates ability to run for a position, let alone win.

  • Luke Place
    25 May 2010 at 21:39
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    “What a perverse kind of sexism it would be to suggest only a woman can represent the needs of women students; or racism to suggest only an Asian can represent Asian students; or bigotry to suggest only a State-schooled Exec officer can represent students who went to State schools. Enough divisive identity politics, please!”

    I’m not sure anyone has suggested that “only” members of a group can represent the interests of that group, but surely having an executive that includes people who have been on the receiving end of racism, sexism, plutocracy and so on would help broaden the wealth of perspectives and experiences useful in helping solve problems.

    As an example, there have been concerns relating to homophobia during Week One for a number of years, but it was only a concerted effort to highlight this by students that helped to force a strengthening of the SU’s preventative policies. Those not personally affected by homophobia were seemingly far less likely to consider the profundity of its effects.

    If we are interested in giving students an equal opportunity to participate in elections, we ought to look into why certain groups of people are far less likely to run in them. Having two weeks of campaigning time free is clearly a luxury candidates enjoy to varying degrees. Whilst this is probably an unavoidable disadvantage, there are disadvantages (like those suggested by Daniel Cooper above) which are avoidable.

  • Luke Place
    25 May 2010 at 22:05
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    “While using myself as an example is probably not that ‘representative’ of all in a similar financial situation, but unfortunately I don’t know the details of anyone else’s finances! Due to my family’s income banding I qualify for the full loan and grant and am automatically eligible for the University bursary. Theoretically no one should have to go through uni on “a wing and a prayer” thanks to these financial support networks.”

    The financial support networks aren’t infallible sadly, so many people do struggle to get by throughout their degree. A friend of mine receives no bursary because his parents earn above the threshold, but because they contribute nothing financially and because he can’t find work, he’s been left with almost nothing to live on after his rent is deducted from his maintenance loan.

    “I also have a part time job and have worked as a volunteer for various different organisations throughout uni, and I’ve been Editor of Impact this year. I’m not wonderwoman and I’m sure many people from poorer backgrounds have similarly full or more impressive CVs.”

    I’m sure there are such people, but surely you must accept that there’s a point at which you would have to be wonderwoman to do everything you want/need to and then to run for exec on top? This shouldn’t be a question of whether running for exec can be done alongside other things, it should be a question of whether it should be something you even have to balance in the first place.

    I know of at least one candidate in the recent elections who may well have cost themselves a degree grade campaigning for an exec position. This person has put in monumental effort into a variety of areas, but ultimately came unstuck because they threw away their degree going for a sabbatical position. It seems crazy to me that an organisation aimed at assisting the well-being of its members can have an election process that puts students’ degree classifications at risk.

  • Dave Jackson
    26 May 2010 at 11:58
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    Luke, you’ve used the example of homophobic chants – as you’ve stated yourself it took a big push by SU Councillors (such as yourself I’d imagine, I accidently fell asleep on my desk instead of going to that meeting!) to get it done, but it has been done nonetheless.

    Surely, more than anything, this defends the suggestion that the demographic makeup of the Exec is of minor importance? We ‘have’ a body which is specifically designed to be (disproportionally) representative of groups which have, as you say, been victims of “racism, sexism, plutocracy and so on” – it’s the SU Council.

    Whether that’s a good or bad thing is another discussion, but my point is that we shouldn’t worry too much if our (democratically elected) SU Exec turn out to be slightly more homogenous then we might expect, as our SU’s principal institution is designed not to be and – as you have pointed out – is fully willing and able to exert its authority on issues of diversity and such.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m talking of council in a pejorative tone, but my perspective was always that the Exec actually ‘did’ stuff (thus the word ‘executive’), while the Council was there principally to be a sounding board specifically for issues of discrimination, or to raise issues pertaining to particular groups which might otherwise be ignored. If the Exec was designed to be a team of delegates from each particular ethnic community or gender, then there would be quotas. If the Council was supposed to have full representative legitimacy, it’d have proper democratic elections. Maybe I have misjudged what these two arms of our SU are for – feel free to enlighten me!

  • Luke Place
    29 May 2010 at 00:45
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    Dave, although this particular policy “has been done nonetheless”, I’d suggest that it’s been done later than it should have been. Homophobia during Week One has been a problem for several years and yet (to my knowledge) the previous SU Execs and SU Councils showed little or no interest in addressing it.

    Though SU council is supposed to promote “minority representation” it does this primarily by having a handful of representational officer positions. This means that that only 1 of the 98 voting members represents LGBT students, so if the LGBT Officer doesn’t turn up to Council, an accurate assessment of the impact of a motion upon LGBT students might well not be forthcoming.

    In the aforementioned SU Council, for example, the LGBT Officer wasn’t in attendance and when members of the Exec questioned the proposer of the motion, a member of Steering Committee resigned from her position so that she could speak in favour of the motion. The existence of representational officers at SU Council certainly doesn’t guarantee it will always be representative.

    Even if SU Council was representative, the fact that it only meets every month or two means that the day-to-day decisions within the SU and the direction of the union itself are set by the Executive Officers. This means that a broader spectrum of perspectives within the Exec could well be valuable to the union, since they’ve not always got a representative group of people waiting to help them whenever they make a decision.

    There’s no need for “quotas”, since they could clearly hinder democracy, but the SU ought to ensure that every group of people have an equal opportunity to run in the elections in the first place. The debate about what is prohibitive needs to be had. Should we hold elections whilst members of certain religions are likely to be fasting? Should we give people their campaign budget in advance, or reimburse them afterwards?

  • Dave Jackson
    29 May 2010 at 18:28
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    If there’s a genuine concern that our elections are not inclusive enough, then i’d be very interested in hearing the debate, as long as the debate isn’t started on the founding principle that “We have too many white, male, privately educated candidates winning in the election – something must therefore be wrong”.

  • Rob
    30 May 2010 at 01:11
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    Unfortunately any debate on inclusiveness would be completely colonized by people starting from the assumption Dave Jackson laid out above. And I fear plenty of the people who keep banging on about ‘identity’ would actually be convinced by the argument to specifically accomedate certain students lifestyle choices, by that I mean their choice to believe in some God or Dog or something?.The fact that no-one could answer my questions laid out in earlier posts shows that no one does know why there is disproportionate numbers of men standing, nor can they offer a solution.

  • David Rees
    30 May 2010 at 12:43
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    I don’t know why there are a disproportionate number of men standing for SU positions, however I don’t think it is isolated to just this. Form my experience there is are far more men involved within the students union and its SRS’s. This is not to say there are no women, nor to say the women involved aren’t good. Merely that there do seem do be more men. If you don’t believe me look at the heads of each SRS, I’m not certain but i’m pretty sure they are predominantly, if not all male.

    I think it’s from the pooling grounds from which most people normally run for SU positions (SRSs, AU, JCRs, Societies) that has the disproportionate numbers in. The next question would obviously be why is this?

    And I don’t know.

    Perhaps you could conclude that on average men like to get involved with the SU more then girls.

    “better publicity through the right channels and networks.”

    I think what George is saying here is that the people are defiantly out there, and we have the networks set up to reach them, such as JCRs. Its just a question of using these networks to their full potential to communicate with more members of the student body and make them aware of all the possibilities available to them within the university.

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