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State of the Union

In the past couple of weeks I am sure you have read about several allegations made against the Union: It is not representative; it disregards students’ opinions; it is too political; it campaigns too much. I am not writing this piece to ignore these allegations, but precisely because I want to acknowledge them, even though I believe that they, unfortunately, depict a very incomplete image of the union.�

The Students’ Union is a large organisation; it employs over 30 members of staff in different areas and it runs two bars, three shops and a nightclub on campus. USSU provides entertainments, advice, sports, activities, facilities, support, representation, information, and many more things that go far beyond campaigning and politics. Having said that though, USSU is a union, and it correctly and rightfully also engages in political issues that are of importance to students. 

I find the argument made by some that the Union should be ‘less political’ very difficult to follow. Yes, there have been presidential candidates that have been standing on ‘fun’ as a platform, however it has been clear through the results of the elections that the candidates with a rather more political agenda received the largest share of the vote. In my opinion, having a non-political outlook of the Union means ignoring a lot of issues that students face these days, from debts, to fees, to ID cards for international students, just to name a few. What makes a union unique and indispensable is precisely the fact that it can stand up strongly and freely for students also when it comes to political issues. Anyway, whoever said that political precludes fun? 

I am also not convinced by the argument that the AGM is unrepresentative because it called for a referendum on whether or not the Union should stay affiliated to the NUS. With the information received though talks given by sabbaticals and the national secretary of the NUS, Richard ‘Bubble’ Budden, the AGM decided that all the students on this campus should have to right to vote on whether or not they want USSU to be affiliated to NUS as an organisation. In my opinion, direct democracy such as referenda are actually a positive way of allowing students to speak their mind, and since USSU’s affiliation to the NUS is important, I don’t see any harm in getting students’ opinion on it. 

Having said that, what I do believe is that USSU needs to find better ways of presenting itself and communicating to students so that every student on this campus feels empowered to make a contribution to their Unions’ agenda. This is certainly something that sabbatical officers this year have been trying to improve, though creating new forums such as the badger online, officer blogs, facebook groups, organising outreach stalls and reviewing the Unions engagement strategy. 

All six union sabbatical officers are going to be out in Library Square for a question and answer session/ informal chat on Monday of week 10, from 1 till 2. Why not come along?

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3 Comments

  1. Hey Laura,

    Firstly I’d like to thank you for writing this article. It’s good to know students like myself are making our voices heard. I would however like to respond to a couple of points you raised.

    Firstly, I am fully supportive of any campaign that directly affects students, such as the campaign for free education. While I don’t take an active involvement in the running of the campaign, I have turned out to as many of the demos as I can make in order to show my support. We students need to have our rights fought for, and the Union is what makes that happen. The problem I have is that nearly every campaign on campus, whether it directly affects students or not, is run by the same left-oriented clique that runs the Union. Not only does this put people off getting involved in campaigning, it also puts them off getting involved in the Union because they simply aren’t as passionate about every issue being campaigned for.

    Secondly, the Union is NOT representative of the student body. You only have to look at the turnout figures for the sabb elections and the AGM to see this. The AGM in particular requires 5% of the student population for quoracy, meaning that decisions can be made on everyone’s behalf by only 2.5% of students. The fact that the AGM called for a referendum only proves my point – the majority of students at the AGM were in favour of disaffiliating, but at the referendum itself an overwhelming majority of those who voted (themselves making up less than a fifth of all Sussex students) voted to stay in the NUS. If this same group of people had been at the AGM the idea of even having a referendum would have been shot down there and then.

    The problem is that not enough people are voting, primarily because they don’t feel included in the Union and feel their votes won’t make a difference. While voter turnouts are as low as they currently are (yes, the sabb elections had a record turnout of just under a fifth of the student body, but there’s serious room for improvement), the Union will never be representative. I’m not naive enough to blame this on anyone within the Union itself, but the Union as a whole needs to take responsibility for finding a solution. The sabbatical officers this year have made a good start for which I applaud and thank them, but more needs to be done. Having read Damien Valentine’s article “Have the righteous been rumbled?” published last Monday, I asked a few students on the “science side” of campus whether they felt included in the Union, and the response from every one of them was a resounding “meh”, with comments such as “they ignore us and we ignore them” expressing the root of the problem.

    The Union listens to those who speak out, but what they really need to do now is start listening to the vast majority of students who don’t.

    Reply
  2. I whole heartedly agree with Dorian’s comment.

    When reading your article I thought it sounded like a very generic answer that really failed to tackle, to any great depth, issues that the authors of the articles you responded to and the following commentators have subsequently raised. I grant you credit that you have acknowledged our arguments but I feel instead of taking them on board you have rather gone on the defensive. I feel that most of the issues raised by this debate are not intended to be attacks but genuine concerns of what is becoming a marginalised majority. This majority is not just restricted to science students. I happen to be a politics and IR student but am feeling the same isolation from the union. And yes, I am using this forum to be heard but there is no point if my arguments and the arguments of other people using this forum are simply going to be brushed aside by those who run the union, in particular your article has just tried to do this. More over I am just one person and while this may improve your statistics of participation it is still clearly not enough. Using the same arguments we hear of AGM and union policy is pointless, Dorian and I would assume many others have already undermined them very sufficiently. I do realise, however, that the AGM may require such quoracy for practical reasons to get round the political apathy when really we should be tackling the issue.

    My only hope is that this debate grows, despite those who wish to squash it, more people will start to question the current status quo and we can start to see some major reform to the ends in which we will keep our vigorous campaigning alive but not at the expense of ignoring the student voice and to break the perceptions of elitism and the “left wing clique” that currently surround the union. I feel if this does happen student participation will raise ten fold and more people can feel proud to be part of their union, as this is definitely not the current state of affairs.

    Reply
  3. I’d just like to add that my intention in writing is not to simply make allegations against the Union, but to raise awareness of a very real problem that afflicts it. This problem is, very simply, student apathy. I want to see this problem solved, and I’d very much like to hear from anyone who has any ideas concerning how to make this happen. My email address is dorianvalentine@hotmail.co.uk – please get in touch.

    Reply

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