A response to student apathy
As a Union Sabbatical, I think it is important that the Union comes back on the points raised since the AGM and student apathy/disengagement generally, especially Paul Codd’s article last week (“The Apathy of US”). Before I respond to some of these points, I would like to point out that Sussex Student’s Union remains one of the most politically active Unions there is.
Our AGM is one of, if not the, biggest in the country. Most unions fail to get 1% of their student body in a room or even 100, let alone anything approaching 5%. Student Unions are nationally facing the problems of apathy and engagement, yet Sussex has been beating the trend and has been maintaining student participation. Only last year, public meetings on Education Not for Sale were over 500 people strong. Our election turnouts consistently gets 20-25% of the student population voting. This may seem like not much, but is way above what most Unions can achieve. Plus, people always forget that the Union involves hundreds of students through its sport and societies.
This still doesn’t mean that we can just sit back and rest on this reputation and claim that students are engaged, but the Union has a duty to reach out and get even more students involved. If anything, we are fighting to improve this, to get more students out voting, at committees and involved in politics. A Union is only as strong as its members and so for every student who is actively part of the Union, only makes us stronger.
I stand by my comments that the AGM is the “pinnacle of USSU democracy” and as the forum to which any student can publicly get up to hold us accountable and try to raise policy the Union should be fighting on. Any student can put in a motion or raise a question from the floor. It’s here that we can discuss anything students want and where we can debate on the biggest issues effecting USSU. And it’s here we decided not to stock Coca Cola and Nestle products and the debate that launched our No Platform Policy.
Some students are complaining that the AGM isn’t representative of them nor is discussing the issues that affect them.
Many issues that do effect students, such as rent prices, food on campus and contact hours, the Union takes up already, if we didn’t then we wouldn’t be doing our jobs. Do we really need a motion at AGM saying the Union wants more contact hours? If we did, would students be any more likely to come to join in on the debate for more contact hours? I doubt it. And shouldn’t the Student Union be fighting for more contact hours anyway?
As for a required 50% turnout referendum just to confirm the results, its completely unrealistic and ultimately pointless. If students are turned off by the AGM, how will voting to approve a whole random stack of decisions where they don’t have a forum.
What would happen if they voted “no”, but still refused to attend a meeting to gain the required quoracy? Should we condemn everyone who did turnout, who were actively engaged and made the effort to turn up? Then we would be left with no budget, no motions and no campaigns. The AGM is by no way the perfect body for policy deciding, but it does give every student in the Union the chance to step forward and speak out on anything they feel about the Union or the University. A million individual referendums would not.
This doesn’t mean we don’t want to use more referendums as a way to engage more students and try to be more representative. What the latest AGM has shown is that there is serious discontent with the NUS and with the presence of military bodies on campus. Over such a controversial issue that will affect all students like NUS, 2% of students can’t just make the decision, and as a result will be going to referendum. Military bodies on campus is likely to be sent to referendum as well, and here all students will get another chance to choose what they want to happen. This will be heavily publicised and debated in The Badger and across campus, raising the political debate as much as we can to get all students involved.
Student apathy isn’t something we are ignoring and we actively looking to combat it. This includes looking into electronic voting for future elections and referendum, but it has a lot of implications that we need to sort out if we are to use it on a wide scale. All the Sabbaticals have been writing weekly blogs since July (available at blogs.ussu.info) as way of showing everyone what we are doing and The Badger does have its own Union page towards the back with updates. We are always open and encourage people coming to see us or sending emails if they have a problem, a question or just want to know what’s going on. I realise this is a two way street and have been door knocking and asking ordinary students how they feel on certain issues whilst responding to comments and articles in The Badger to show that we are listening and responding.
As I’ve said before, the Union is as strong as its membership and we can only encourage you to get involved. If you don’t feel like we’re representing you or you have a problem or a question, or want the Union to fight for something, then the simple answer is turn up, get involved, vote, send in motions, run for a position, come to committees or become a student representative. If you don’t feel you have the time to then you can email or talk to your student rep, a course rep and yes, even your sabbatical officers.
Student Unions nationally are fighting against this wave of apathy. Sussex remains one of the most politically engaged because it fights to get its students involved and we will continue to do so. If you don’t feel it isn’t then get involved and help us do that. It’s the hard work and activism of those volunteers and staff that give so much of their time and efforts to the Union that will make this happen, not cheap sniping from those who don’t.