Emily Cousens: Why our Student Union Needs to be Political

Broadly speaking, the role of a student union is to represent the general interests of the students within a particular institution. However, what do we actually expect of our student union and why is OUSU (the Oxford University Student Union) the joint worst in the country?1 I will argue that politics is an important part of all student unions but in fact – given the disconnected structure of Oxford’s representative bodies – politics is crucially important to the relevance of OUSU in particular.

At the beginning of this term, just before the excitement of freshers’ week among nervous newbies and well-rested returning students, National Student Survey (NSS) data was released that showed that our student union was rated the joint worst in the country. The ranking itself is not worth dwelling on for too long: Oxford’s collegiate structure gives the student union a different relevance to that of other universities where the student union is a central social and political body. Cambridge’s union only ranked 6 places above Oxford’s and Durham’s, the union of another collegiate university only 17 places above that – still failing to sit among the top 100 institutions. This raises the question: what form of representation should our student union provide?

The functions of a traditional student union are split in Oxford. JCRs and MCRs deal with the day-to-day resolution of smaller issues within a college and the social and entertainment side. The Oxford Union currently takes a chunk of the political role and benefits from a lot of the financial support that might go to an ordinary student union; this allow it to provide social events, as well as offering a cheap bar. OUSU is then seen to take on the less exciting roles of student welfare and minority representation; and most students pass their three years at Oxford without having any contact with it.

Clearly, however, there are two problems here. Firstly, these less exciting roles are in fact very important. The role of minority representation for example is vital, especially in an institution as traditional and conservative as Oxford University. Jess Pumphrey’s tireless efforts last year culminating in the de-gendering of subfusc shows the vital role the institution can play, even if this is for a minority of people.2 Secondly, the idea that many students hold – that the political functions of a student union are served by the Oxford Union while OUSU is just full of politically-correct bureaucrats – worryingly reinforces OUSU’s perceived irrelevance. Moreover, the Oxford Union has an extortionate membership fee of £229 – way beyond the means of most hard-pressed students – and its committee positions tend to be dominated by students from privileged, conservative and private-school backgrounds. This is compounded by the fact that many JCRs refuse to endorse ‘political motions’: for the majority of students, political representation is only achievable through OUSU.

In fact, at the time of OUSU’s official recognition less than 40 years ago, senior university members were so worried about its political potential that giving the central student body its own building was deemed to entail a risk of inciting political activism. The reluctance of the university staff to grant this led to sit-ins in Exam Schools.3 Clearly, the body has a thoroughly political history, and in 1974 was seen as hugely important to students. Yet now the institution is perceived by some to be so willfully unrepresentative that Trinity College JCR and a number of MCRs are disaffiliated from it.

Whilst OUSU’s relevance is declining, the importance of students in politics is increasing. The last four decades saw the numbers of students in higher education expand enormously from 1.7 million in 1971 to 3.5 million in 2009, meaning that students now represent a large and distinct force within society. Furthermore, the importance of this expansion is in its opening up of higher education to a broader range of backgrounds. It is no longer the case that university is the preserve of the elite: while examples such as the Bullingdon Club photo and Sutton Trust findings that students from private schools are 55 times more likely to get a place at Oxford than state school students who receive free school meals4 do little to support arguments that Oxford is now anti-elitist, there is no doubt that since the Student Union was officially recognised in 1974, there has been a increase in the breadth of student voices that require representation.

On top of this, students are among the best placed in society for political engagement. Students find themselves at a transitional point in society, between childhood and full incorporation into the world of work. They are less constrained than workers by routine, bureaucracy or financial responsibility and are less affected by demoralizing experiences and far more likely to assert that another world is possible. This enables students to be astute in making connections between struggles and to generalise from immediate experience to big political questions. Often their hopes are dashed by an overbearing neoliberal orthodoxy, especially in economics and social sciences, but there is still far more space for such aspirations at universities than in the wider society. The student movement in Britain has highlighted this, from the prevalence of Palestinian flags at anti-fees demonstrations, the adoption of the red square symbol of the Quebec student movement CLASSE, or the naturalness with which demonstrators marched to the Egyptian Embassy following the London demonstration in January, linking the struggle against austerity with the struggle against Mubarak. A student union should support and enable this political and intellectual development and be a place where people can come together and find resources that will help them campaign, and one that informs and educates people.

Yet in many ways OUSU is travelling in the opposite direction to students themselves. Political activism has persisted across Oxford over the last few years; from the occupation of the Clarendon building to protest the actions of the Israel military in Gaza in 2009, to large demonstrations against the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, in October 2010 and Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts on 9th November 2012. In wider student activism Oxford also fares well, with a strong presence in the national Education Activist Network.

One of the key problems with OUSU lies in its view of representation. Instead of recognising the issues that students are involved in, representation is seen as being simply mediation between students and university management. Funds and facilities that might be used for campaigning on both local and national issues are rarely harnessed, and OUSU’s £2000 discretionary fund often remains untouched at the end of each presidency. Local issues such the existence of the Campsfield detention centre for asylum-seekers just a few miles from the centre of Oxford, and the treatment of migrants who are kept there; the University’s investment in weapons manufactures and dealers; and international issues such as Palestine solidarity are ignored by OUSU for much of the time. The link between such political apathy and student engagement is evident from the fact that Sheffield Student Union – ranked as the top university Student Union in the recent survey – is willing to be political; it recently passed a motion to support BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel).5 When student unions attempt to situate themselves in the political activism of the wider university then they become popular and democratic institutions.

This is ignored by candidates running for sabbatical positions in OUSU. Professionalism triumphs over political engagement. Even if a more politically engaged student is elected to a sabbatical position, they can expect to be faced with endless bureaucracy, cost constraints and only 24 weeks of term during their tenure: an impossible situation in which to try to transform an institution. It is hardly surprising then that voter turnout for OUSU elections is so low: last year’s poor result of less than one in five students voting was hailed as a relative triumph.

OUSU has moved from its strong popular origins to become a distant, faceless service provider for students. Much of its work is focussed on providing student support, rather than representing students against the university authorities. The notion of enhancing or protecting the ‘student experience’ has overshadowed any opportunity for meaningful change. This even extends to a situation of pitting students against staff: celebrating the ‘best lecturers’ through lecturer of the year awards, which effectively encouraging students to choose between the good and the bad and distinguish who is providing a better service for the student consumers.

The culture of OUSU has thus shifted from being a representative body to a service provider and manager. Depoliticisation and commercialisation have led to the importance of the OUSU ‘brand image’. OUSU endorses certain club nights, sells ‘stash’ and has recently rebranded its website to make its service more visibly attractive to students – despite the fact that nothing has changed in the day-to-day bureaucracy.

OUSU needs to re-think the way it works if it is going to ever be relevant to the student body beyond the cliques of insiders and managerial careerists who attend OUSU council. Intervening in an election on a political basis and proposing motions in support of strikes or demonstrations can go some way to breaking the ice of depoliticisation. Such interventions can also inspire and engage a larger audience, polarise debate round definite issues, and provide a uniting campaigning focus. OUSU’s support for the NUS demonstration on 21st November is a step in the right direction, and is strongly supported by the Oxford Left: a Slate standing in this term’s Student Union elections, which aims to make OUSU more democratic and inclusive. Our university’s Student Union must address its position towards the students it claims to be representing. As Higher Education institutions are being threatened, a representative student union must defend education in the interest of current and prospective students. Making OUSU a campaigning, integrated and responsive student union that puts the student at the heart of their education is what is necessary to tackle its current irrelevance in the eyes of the majority of students.

Oxford is one of the most middle-class universities in the country – its social profile shows it is 89% upper- and middle-class6 – and its political apathy is a reflection of privilege. The financial problems many students face are less of a problem at Oxford and governmental changes are less devastating at a university where the majority of its funding comes from external donors, not central government. However given the importance of the student voice and the lack of other representative political institutions within Oxford, it is necessary to tackle OUSU’s crisis of irrelevance and ensure that our University has a central political body that actively and inclusively represents its students.

Emily Cousens is in the final year of a PPE degree at Wadham College and is standing for election as NUS delegate in the OUSU elections, as part of the Oxford Left slate.

1 Along with Oxford Brookes student union: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/datablog/2012/ sep/28/worst-student-unions-national-survey.
2 See oxfordstudent.com/2012/07/28/sub-fusc-gender-restrictions-thrown-out/ and http://www.guardian. co.uk/education/2012/jul/29/oxford-university-dress-code-transgender-students.
3 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_University_Student_Union#Protests_and_occupations.
4 See http://www.suttontrust.com/news/news/private-school-pupils-55-times/.
5 See http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2012/10/501795.html.
6 See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/dec/06/oxford-colleges-no-black-students.

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