The Students’ Union needs to combat apathy it if wants to remain relevant.
The Student Union’s vision of 2006, focuses on several long term objectives; for example, by 2016 the Union wishes to involve over half the student body directly in the running of the Union. Equally important is an aim to ensure that the Union becomes the centre of extracurricular life at Sussex.
The AGM is currently seen as the student body’s main chance to take part in the running of the union, indeed as Lee Vernon (USSU Finance Officer) describes, the AGM should be seen as “the pinnacle of USSU democracy” or, as The Badger itself advertised, the AGM is the opportunity to “Stand Up [and] Speak Out” about issues regarding the Union’s direction.
‘26% of available representative positions are listed as vacant, with only one department achiev-ing full representation’
Yet this “pinnacle” achieved a voter turnout of barely 5%, scraping through the requirement to pass Union policy. Equally worrying, the revamped student rep scheme, which is intended to “Represent the student voice on any issue affecting the quality of the student experience within the department and more widely across the University as a whole” has seen low participation.
Taking the School of Social Sciences & Cultural Studies (SOCCUL) as an example, at the time of writing 26% of available representative positions are listed as vacant, with only one department; Geography achieving full representation. Students it seems, are not only failing to take part in Union decisions, but by ignoring the student rep scheme, failing to welcome the opportunity to raise their voice and opinion.
Clearly, USSU suffers from participant apathy, a problem it needs to address if it hopes to achieve the goals set out for 2016. Unfortunately it is far too simplistic to reject voter apathy as a case of “lazy students”. Student apathy, I feel is caused by the Union’s current inherent lack of representation.
‘How is it possible that a turnout of 5% of voters could possibly be viewed as an adequate represen-tation of the views of the student body?’
The AGM is a brilliant process for debate, yet it is not representative. There is no link guaranteed between the general student body and the motions put forward at the AGM. The motions put forward instead act as a showcase of the views of independent highly active and political groups. Take a quick look at the motions put forward at Thursday’s meeting; do you see mass support by the student body as a whole? or does the AGM only feature issues big enough to attract dedicated independent minority support?
The motions put forward at the AGM reflect important issues; important yes, but only due to the AGM’s constitutional position here is no requirement for mass support by the student body. Take for example the voting process used at the AGM. For a motion to be made into an official Union decision, it requires over 50% of support from Union members, a fine principle of popular support in theory.
Yet, digging deeper, this “popular support” is currently measured only by the support shown at the AGM, which in itself only requires an electoral turnout of just 5% of the student body. How is it possible that a turnout of 5% of voters could possibly be viewed as an adequate representation of the views of the student body at large?
Clause 4.5 of the Union’s constitution arguably enshrines and encourages unrepresentative decisions. The ramifications of this clause is however much more worrying to those who might either place themselves in opposition, or as I suspect, feel indifferent to the motions put forward at the AGM. As established, a decision can be made if 5% of the student body participate in the meeting, this means that if over 50% of those individuals support a motion, it can be passed. What this really means, is that just 2.5% of the student body can in theory alone, create Union decisions, which directly affect the remaining 97.5% of students.
The AGM in its current form, therefore goes against what the Union hopes to achieve by 2016, the involvement of “over half of the student body”, is unnecessary as with its current constitution, only 5% involvement is required. The AGM should continue to exist as an opportunity for debate and discussion on Union activities, but not in its current form as a policy-deciding machine. Annual General Meetings work on a small scale, for sailing clubs, or a local society dedicated to the fight against AIDS, not for an organization intended to represent 12,000+ individuals.
Instead, I would argue the AGM should be followed by a representative vote, which requires at least 50% voter turnout of the entire student body to be valid.
This representative vote should be designed in a manner that avoids the standard inherent problem of voting, that is busy lifestyles. Let the vote take place over a long time, perhaps a week, and in a location not affected by time constraints. Why doesn’t the Union utilize the biggest asset available, the Internet and sussex.ac.uk email addresses to assist, or as method of voting? If the University of Sussex can organize subject elective choice via the Internet, why doesn’t the Union use the Internet to vote?
Whilst this solution might ensure that a vote is representative, it does not however solve the problem of a lack of representation in the policies put forward for approval as motions. This is where the student representatives, where they exist need to step up.
Through the student representative system, the Union needs to ensure that every issue, even seemingly mundane concerns like security, or library provision are seen by students to be as important as the big campaigns like “Sussex not for sale”.
The provision of easier access, anonymous opinion boxes, email alerts and the like would go a long way to ensure that all students feel directly involved with the Union.
The Union must shake off the image of being the playground of independent group politics, and prove that not only is it listening, but also that it is available for everyday fundamental student concerns. As my flat mate remarked: “Why should I take part in the AGM, these aren’t issues that affect me much.”
This is where the second aim of the Union’s 2016 vision comes in. The Union must become “the hub of extracurricular life at Sussex” if it wants to remain relevant to students. The Union needs to keep its members better informed. The Badger already features Union news, but why not a dedicated section complete with small blog entries from the Union officers, explaining why this week’s Union activity has relevance to the student body? Use Union facilities to spread information, monthly meetings at East Slope bar for example. The Union needs to use the strategies that have worked for its most popular social associations, and apply them in a manner that encourages participation by students in everyday Union decisions.
The Union cannot remain complacent; the student body will continue to need the Union to ensure that student opinions are felt, be it in local institutional decisions by the University, or much larger global issues. The only chance for success is if the Union can be sure that it truly represents students, not just highly politically motivated groups.