Should there be a more radical approach to SU politics?
There is a need now, more than at any other time, for the kind of radicalism and ambitiousness the Red Slate promises to bring to the SU. Over the last few years, the Student Union has become, in all but name, an arm of the managerial structure of Sussex University PLC. In many cases, it has been reduced to little more than the arm of management that tries to justify management’s decisions to students. A clean and radical break is needed from this failed model.
Don’t get me wrong, hot drinks in the library and an online Book Market are good things. But nobody who’s interested in seriously dealing with the underlying barriers to educational attainment students from working-class, poor, and previously disadvantaged backgrounds come up against every day, believes either of these “achievements” represents earth-shattering progress. We ought to be asking ourselves why students want to sell their books. Is it simply because they want to declutter their shelves? Or is it more likely that they are forced to do so because of the rising costs of acquiring an education, and need the extra cash?
The marketisation of the British university system began apace in 2013, but the sheer crudeness of its effects on real human lives have seldom been clearer than they are today, with attacks on students (in the form of increased fees, higher housing costs, decrepit living conditions in university housing, the erosion of assistance programs for poorer students, etc.) and workers’ rights (the casualisation of Tutors and non-academic staff, and pensions cuts). The current approach – negotiating with management – can, at best, only slow the pace of marketisation, whereas what is needed is an SU that will actively try to roll it back.
Nobody is going to stem the tide of marketisation by talking with management. Management seems to have a financial interest in marketisation. Comparable managerial jobs in the strictly public sector pay much less. For example, a recent Guardian report found that “university Vice Chancellors are paid much better than their public sector peers”. It is this incentive structure that may explain (even if only partly) Adam Tickell’s radical change of tune, from writing, in 1995, “capitalism is the enemy, but neoliberalism seems to me to be worse than social democracy. Perhaps we should…attempt to slay the neoliberal beast,” to saying in an interview in 2018, “The younger me may have taken part in the [UCU] strikes, I don’t know about the current me”. I cannot, for the life of me, tell what changed! What I can tell, though, is that this is not the tenor of a man who will deliver the changes needed without concerted, radical pressure from below.
It is no surprise then that the current SU has failed to prevent the demolition of one of the cheapest student residences on campus by “negotiating” with management. Their negotiations have only produced “wins” meant to make marketisation more palatable.
To be sure, the SU should sometimes talk with management, about how best to achieve certain things. The SU cannot solve issues with student assessments on its own, for example. But this should not amount to liaising with management about what can or will be allowed to be done. As representatives of the primary stakeholders in a university system, the SU should always consciously try to put itself in a position to wrestle management, if need be, in order to obtain changes which they believe to be advantageous to students.
To conclude, I have sensed a certain wariness toward the ambitiousness and radicalism of the Red Slate. To be sure, as far as I can tell, this wariness is from a tiny cohort of Tory students. What this wariness exposes, though, is a “poverty of imagination” on the part of those involved. Often masquerading as a desire for “seriousness”, “realism” and/or “competence”, this wariness is underpinned by an unwillingness or inability (a) to set sights higher than most believe possible; (b) to upend the existing oppressive system (perhaps because it is not oppressive to one personally), or; (c) to commit the required effort to crafting new, creative ways to solve deep-seated problems. As I see it, Red Slate candidates are the most serious, realistic and competent of all on offer. Something we have had in abundance in this election are hefty promises, but only the Red Slate seems to understand what it will take to achieve even a smidgen of real change.
There are calls from some candidates in this year’s exec elections for the students’ union to adopt a more radical approach to student politics, particularly those on the ‘Red Slate’ grouping of left-wing candidates. One of the Red Slate’s headline policies is a totally-feasible-and-not-completely-nonsensical plan to establish an entire bus network (provided free to students, of course).
Candidate for USSU president on the Red Slate, Duncan Michie, was this week arguing for a policy of absolute non-cooperation and direct confrontation with university management, rubbishing the incrementalism of previous years. He appears to lack any understanding of the most basic function of the SU, promising that he will not represent students who disagree with him, and remarks in an almost authoritarian fashion that democracy is about the ‘majority having their will’.
Putting aside these worrying statements, is there any value to this so-called ‘radicalism’? I’ll start with the tactics. ‘Starting a fight with management’ might sound feisty and heroic when there is so much antipathy towards university management at present, but it will achieve the precise opposite of what he’s hoping. Whatever the disagreements with management, refusing to engage with them except to issue demands will result in exactly none of those demands being met. ‘Endless meetings’, as Red Slate describe them, are for better or worse the main way change is achieved in student politics (or indeed, any politics), and if people can’t hack that then maybe these positions aren’t for them. There is of course a place for protests and student activism (some of the successes by ACORN regarding tenant disputes are testament to this) but this can only go so far. Disrupting management and the running of the university will inevitably lead to disruption to students and make Sussex a worse place to live and to study.
And then of course there’s a second question: do we need radical policies, alongside radical tactics? People can crow all they want about the vaguely defined forces of ‘marketisation’ and ‘neoliberalism’ ruining higher education, but higher education has been doing fairly well by most measures. More working class people (indeed more people generally) are going to university than ever before. Many ‘radical’ policies, such as abolishing tuition fees , as student unions and candidates like the Red Slate continually argue in favour of, are actually pretty conservative. It’s also difficult to make a convincing argument for abolishing your primary source of funding, while at the same time advocating spending enormous sums on other policies (like free buses).
I think many students would much rather their student unions stick to their core mission – that is, being a union, for students, instead of being a glorified campaigning society for the politics of the students who run them. Dropping the endorsement of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) campaign would be a great start. I for one agree that Israel’s foreign policy can be pretty bad (almost as bad as some of its neighbours). But I’m not sure what this dispute over a patch of land the size of Hertfordshire several thousand miles away has to do with Sussex’s student union. Or, for that matter, any student union in the UK.
For certain, there are some good policies within the platforms advanced by candidates like the Red Slate. Ideas like providing drug testing kits or improved mental health services are great and perfectly achievable. No one could argue with campaigning against rogue landlords and rent rises – although when complaining about the higher rent in the new East Slope, it would be more honest to mention that other accommodation is being lowered in price to compensate for this. When students cast their votes in this years’ SU election, they would be wise to vote for candidates who prioritise improving the lives of students, rather than making empty promises and picking pointless fights.