The news that Oxford University has spent over £300,000 on renovation of offices of the Oxford SU, previously OUSU, will come as no surprise to many given the recent overhaul of the Oxford SU brand.
The student union controversially spent almost £17,500 last year on a digital rebrand carried out by a London digital marketing agency, with Oxford SU Communications Coordinator Megan Mary Thomas telling Cherwell at the time that the decision to overhaul its logo and website was made as a response “to student feedback that the SU was not successfully representing its members interest.”
This highlights the real nub of the issue. In 2016 the newly branded Oxford SU held a dismal satisfaction rating of 34 per cent, the lowest in the country, although it’s worth observing that Cambridge’s equivalent, the CUSU, did not fare much better, with a mere 37 per cent of students expressing satisfaction with their union.
The Oxford SU has long stood as a byword within the University for inactivity and remoteness, only vaguely relevant to the day to day lives of students at the University.
The benefits of delegation of student union representation to individual college JCRs have been manifold: JCRs facilitate close-knit college communities, with committee members acting at a grassroots level to represent JCR members directly to staff.
The local scale of these organisations also allows for difference in method and constitution depending on the environment and personality of the college, which often varies considerably within the University. However, the inevitable trade-off has been what can be described as at best ambivalence, and at worst scornful scepticism directed towards the Oxford SU institution which seems so immutably detached from the vast majority of students.
We cannot blame the organisation for attempting to change this woeful situation. But I must question whether a revamped social media presence and move to stylish new headquarters at 4 Worcester Street, complete with £26,000 worth of new furniture, and recording equipment for online radio station Oxide, is the correct way to go about enacting real repair to the Oxford SU’s negligible relationship with the Oxford student body.
An Oxford SU spokesperson told Cherwell earlier this month: “The new space has increased the opportunity for students to use space that Oxford SU provides with more student meetings, campaigns and socials happening in the building over the last term”.
I am sceptical as to whether Oxford students feel the need for an additional meeting space, given the plethora of grazing ground we are offered by facilities such as college JCRs, the Radcliffe Camera, the Oxford Union, faculty libraries, and countless cafes throughout the city.
What is more positive, however, is that the same spokesman also informed Cherwell that the renovation will “increase space for the University’s Student Welfare and Support Services, which includes the counselling and disability advisory services.” One of the most valued commodities offered by Oxford SU is the University-wide counselling service, which has long been cripplingly oversubscribed and under-facilitated.
Any efforts which can be made to reduce the lamentably lengthy waiting list, and alleviate pressure off local NHS mental health services, will not be in vain. However, it is hard to view such seemingly unrestrained expenditure on interior decoration and a logo which former president of Oxford University Liberal Democrats, Harry Samuels, remarked in the summer “could have [been] done in five minutes on any decent graphics software”, as anything more than an outrageous vanity project.
The Oxford SU must devote more time and money to staff, in particular recruitment and training of valuable counsellors to alleviate the grievous mental health amongst students, as only through regular interaction and dialogue can the SU begin to make amends to the stagnated relationship with its students.