It’s that time of year again, when in a few short weeks posters will spring up in our colleges overnight calling upon us to vote for the next executive of Oxford University Student Union. Turnout, unless anything spectacular happens, will remain around where it has always been with around fifteen to twenty per cent of the student body voting. Chances are, if your opinion of OUSU seems to be what a substantial plurality’s is, you’ve got bored and stopped reading. For some reason you might find their emails annoying, but you’ve never really thought about it. This is in spite of the fact that voters can vote from their own rooms on the internet in a process that takes all of about four or five minutes. So from where comes that culture of indignant apathy? One might say it’s because we’re fine with our Common Rooms, thanks very much. I’d argue that it’s deeper. OUSU is seen as irrelevant by many because it a) doesn’t do enough, b) hasn’t been that good at publicising what it has done very well, c) still comes across as inaccessible and d) remains dangerously underfunded.
My object is not to lambast the current executive. I have a good deal of respect for the thankless job they do and in fact engagement is at its highest in a while. Its freshers’ fair presence was the best it has been in some time. First week OUSU Council was stuffed with people, and I imagine mostly because of the £16k fees motion. But Andrew Hamilton’s comments alone wouldn’t have brought people into Pembroke to sit through the comic opera of OUSU Council- it was because the executive actually engaged. They encouraged debates in common rooms, the president has now written in the OxStu, and they campaigned successfully, enervating both those who proposed and opposed what the executive were doing. That is what student democracy should be about- a culture of discussion and of standing up for students. It’s not something I’ve seen enough of in my time here (again, no offence to OUSU’s autonomous liberation campaigns- WomCam et al are fantastic organisations.)
The language OUSU uses portrays this discussion deficit. Candidates at elections always talk in terms of ‘what OUSU is going to do for you’, ‘how OUSU is going to engage with students’, ‘how OUSU people should visit JCRs more.’ It is the worst approach possible. OUSU is a student union, and unless you’ve intentionally opted out, you are one of it’s 20,000 odd members. The language above reinforces the idea that ‘OUSU’ is a clique, a group of people composed of the executive and the barflies of Council and elections (granted, I am one) rather than an organisation which we are all part of. It is the collective voice of the student body. It is one that we fought hard to win. Students occupied the Exam Schools for several days in their hundreds, and were violently ejected from Catte Street by the dreaded Bulldogs (a university police who were only abolioshed in 2001) so that we could have a central student union. Intercollegiate student organisation is something Oxford had been trying to block since the fourteenth century! And in a climate where our Vice-Chancellor can talk about £16,000 fees with impunity, in the context of soaring living costs, funding reductions, staff pay cuts and persistently poor access statistics, an organised student movement is more important than ever. OUSU is there to represent students, and that means having the debate all year round and perhaps reinventing the way we do things. It certainly does not mean, as happened in first week council, electing people to obscure and oddly powerful committees that no-one’s heard of at the beginning of the meeting, talking in jargon and then pushing through two intensely bureaucratic motions prior to the £16k fees discussion. Sure, approving election regulations and modernising Complaints Committee procedure needed to happen, but did they have to be the first two items for what would be the first experience of student democracy for many?
The ‘stand in our elections’ adverts that OUSU issue in the first few weeks of term are chimerical. There will already have been candidates carefully working away since Trinity of last year, or even Hilary. The reality is that it is highly unlikely that someone who is genuinely persuaded to run for something by OUSU’s election advertising alone will win. Not because they wouldn’t be good at the job, but because a web of informal networks have already sprung up which they cannot be expected to be aware of. Then there is a two-week campaign period. It is a period in which well-rehearsed electoral machines spring into action, taking the vast majority of students by surprise. One such machine is PresCom, the group of JCR presidents that meet weekly to share experience and collaborate on issues. A noble end, undoubtedly- but isn’t it somewhat worrying that this committee bequeaths virtually all the suspected sabbatical election candidates this year, and an overwhelming majority in previous years? There are all too often also machines of people who have learnt their trade either mercilessly hacking away so they can pose for photos in dinner jackets with famous people at the Union, or alternatively knocking on doors in random cities they’ll never visit again for the Labour Party.) How can anyone be genuinely enthused and excited by any policy platform in the space of two-short weeks? How are we to convince people that elections matter when all they seem from the outside is a two-week fanfare of self-promotion that then fades into oblivion as soon as polls close?
The confines of an article do not permit the wider discussion I would want to have on the importance of pan-Oxford student representation, the issues we face today and the institutional history of OUSU. These may all be things which emerge during the electoral period. Talking of which, as a journalist I’ve always felt that whilst there’s nothing wrong with bias, it is important that biases are displayed clearly rather than cloaked in supposed objectivity. And also, that what we omit is as important as what we admit. Therefore I will confess that I am compromised; I am standing for OUSU President this year and at some point you may come across me and my colleagues trying to win you to our manifesto and inviting you to vote for our candidates or join our team. However, that is not what I am doing now. This article is a plea to everyone- students, opposing candidates, people who agree with me: let’s find ways to get student democracy working again.