As we enter the academic year 09-10, we are perhaps looking at one of the bleakest years within the Higher Education sector, characterised first and foremost by a government that no longer has the word ‘university’ in any of its departments (and its convenient replacement ‘business’ does much to set the tone for the attitude towards academia today).
At Sussex we can boast of a university management that cares more about the money brought in by international students than their welfare, and plasma screen televisions in our new unaffordable accommodation, which invites students to a lifetime of debt. And we ask ourselves, where does the institution of a Students’ Union even fit into this picture?
The answer given by university management: nowhere, unless it bends over backwards to toe the university line. The answer I believe in: right in the middle, refusing to let go of the ideals of academics and education in the face of corporate policies.
The drastic cuts made by the University to the USSU’s block grant can be said to be in keeping with the university’s own budget cuts. It can be seen as a result of the recession and government policy that university management (too willingly) follows. It must also be seen, however, as symbolic of a trend that is occurring up and down the country today – the majority of student unions have had their grants cut, and consequently sealed their own fates by agreeing to become the entertainment providers that their university managers always desired them to be. And there you have it – the money gets cut and the student union becomes just a place to hear the latest band playing and to get your pub crawl ticket. Student union campaigning across the country has been reduced to the occasional awareness campaign where the NUS will provide sabbatical officers with posters on the importance of eating healthier food.
We have been lied to again and again by the people who are meant to be guiding Higher Education. Ask university management why they don’t have the money for the USSU, and they will tell you they have made budget cuts across the board. Yet, the Doctoral School has been set up this year to create a representational body for postgraduate students studying at Sussex. They have employed a head of this new school, set up extensive online facilities for the students, and massively publicised it in the prospectus. In effect, they have employed people to do the representational work that we have elected officers and specifically an elected Postgraduate Officer to do. Why don’t you ask them where the money for that came from? I wouldn’t be surprised if it mirrors the kind of financial cuts the union is currently receiving.
The situation is definitely worse than the USSU ever expected it to be, but while I started by saying it will be one of the worst years Higher Education has seen in a long time, I believe that it also has the potential to rebuild a student movement that has died down a great deal over the last decade.
The University has cut the Union’s block grant, and what we as members of USSU are presented with is a fight or flight situation. And to fight will mean asking ourselves some very fundamental questions about what the institution of the Students’ Union really is. Is it simply a service provider; an arm of the university; a Freshers’ Ball that they can put in their prospectus? And more importantly, leading on from these questions, why would the student body, much less the university, fight to keep a union that is doing its best to become like every other ineffective students’ union in the country?
Because this fight will now progress on two levels – one, we must fight this cut. Our elected officers must bring everything they have got and all the support they can get to the negotiating table, and show the university just how important it is in the current economic and political climate to keep the Students’ Union alive.
Second is the harder fight, and perhaps the more important one. We must return to conversations and discussions about what we as students want out of the USSU. Is it more important for us to have the biggest Freshers’ Ball in the country when Brighton has some of the best night life in the UK, or do we value confidential and expert advice given by the Student Advice Centre to people who have nowhere else to turn? What makes us different to the hundreds of other service-provider student unions out there who run the clubs in their local towns but have forgotten what representation means? In other words, what makes the USSU worth saving?
And once we can answer that question for ourselves, countering the university cut may not be much easier for the Union, but I guarantee that it will be done with massive support from the student body. We just need to be sure what we are fighting for.