Are our student officers overstepping or well within their mandate when they actively pursue political objectives?
For – Theo Williams.
Anyone who thinks student unions should not pursue political objectives requires a history lesson. Student unionism has been a part of British university life since the late 19th century and, using a vocabulary borrowed from the highly political trade union movement, has always been ideological in its outlook.
The goal of any union is to protect the interests of its current and future members. Much of the time this means merely providing social spaces and recreational centres in order to improve students’ quality of life, much like an admittedly declining trade union culture has provided subsidised bars and childcare. However, occasionally this does become politically charged. Just as trade unions have campaigned for 8-hour days, holiday pay and weekends, KCLSU has backed demonstrations against cuts to higher education in the last three academic years.
The comparison here is not merely rhetorical – in each case unions fought for the economic wellbeing of their members in the face of capitalist imperatives. The very reason we organise as a union is that we can achieve more collectively than we can individually.
Student unions have also had an impact in the wider political realm. When Barclays Bank withdrew its investment from Apartheid South Africa, it cited the NUS boycott as a contributing factor.
To those who argue that student unions should scrap all this political nonsense and just focus on improving the ‘student experience’, I offer two examples from the last few months at King’s: the extension of library opening times and the U-turn on the merger of the Biomedical Sciences and Medical Schools. Both of these were prompted by student campaigns which frequently referenced the tuition fee hike, low student satisfaction and astronomical salaries of KCL’s senior staff. In these instances it is impossible to untangle the political from the ‘apolitical’ improvement of student services.
Experience tells me how the opposing argument will go. Student unions will perhaps be accused of being run by the self-serving left-wing mafia. It will probably be peppered with criticisms of ULU’s various scandals over the last year, some of which I’ll agree with. Guess what? I want more engagement too! However, the way to achieve this isn’t to shut the whole thing down altogether, which is a more undemocratic measure than the corruption it claims to oppose. The best student politics isn’t led by sabbatical officers, but packed AGMs. We need more student politics and more political students.
Against – Henrique Laitenberger.
Few students are met with greater disdain by their peers, than student politicians. This might come as a surprise – after all, what could be deplorable about actively engaging oneself in the student community?
Student politicos however are all too often perceived as little more than self-important, self-seeking and occasionally megalomaniac Trotsky/Blair/Thatcher-wannabes who seem to subliminally believe that the greatest difference between the post of SU President and that of the US President were the transposed letters in the job titles. Such stereotypes are hardly surprising if student politics is non-ironically described as a “meaningful way of changing the world”, as Michael Chessum, President of the University of London Union (ULU), described it. Though should student politics really be considered a stepping stone to the world of “real” politics? Should student unions serve as a platform for implementing far-reaching partisan agendas?
The first issue with this approach is its lack of practical effect: a boycott of Israeli products by KCLSU will not prevent further settlements on the West Bank for instance and is almost certain to be ignored by the press, the general public and particularly responsible policy-makers. But even more alarming is the (ab)use of student unions by sabbatical officers who prioritise personal ideological goals over student welfare. The latter is their sole purpose however: according to the 1994 Education Act, student unions represent the ‘generality of students at an establishment … in … matters relating to the government of the establishment.’ While political beliefs obviously influence stances on university government – e.g. tuition fees – student unions should not therefore pursue wider political goals unrelated to university life.
In fact, sabbatical officers have no mandate to speak on matters of general politics on behalf of the students they preside over and ought to be wary of doing so. Yet they rarely are. When ULU vice-president Daniel Cooper refused to lay down a Remembrance Day wreath on the union’s (and thus students’) behalf, he was faced with a petition of 1,700 students demanding his resignation – more people than had participated in the elections which saw him become vice-president.
Instead of performing such presumptuous political acts therefore, student unions should focus on providing practically orientated support to students on campus-specific issues. KCLSU has generally stuck to this principle in the past: prioritising longer library opening hours over fracking protests for instance. It should remain that way.
Where do you stand on the debate? Pose your argument in the comment section below!