As OUSU prepares for the selection of new leadership, we are presented with promises and policies by candidates for all positions. Yet OUSU’s role in our University is still fundamentally unclear. OUSU’s involvement in exposing an attempt to defer debate on tuition fees shows what they do best. Hopefully all those running for sabbatical positions were watching.
In a collegiate University, with independent and autonomous political representation in the form of JCR’s, and decentralised provision of student services, what exactly should a Student Union be doing?
One answer is to campaign for centralisation. Yet to do so is to ignore the reality of what Oxford is. The more we give up to a central authority, the less we are able to interact with the social and political units that matter to us most – our colleges. We, as students, are aware of this, and have thus been reluctant to do so. This leads to a wasteful and pointless duplication of services, for little gain.
The fact that OUSU seems to be incapable of responsibly managing it’s money doesn’t help. As revealed last week, OUSU lost £58,000 according to the most recent statistics. This was the largest, but by no means the only, such loss in the last decade. OSSL, the student union’s commercial arm, was largely blamed for failing to reach revenue targets. Yet this doesn’t let OUSU off the hook – after all, who made the estimations, or decided they were credible? Every year, OUSU makes its budgets, and more often than not, fails to balance the books. It is then bailed out by university grants and affiliation fees.
OUSU’s role was already debatable, but indications of incompetence seriously call into question the wider aims that the student union has.
So what exactly should they be doing?
This week’s events give a good example. There is one thing that JCR’s cannot do, and that is represent the concerns of the entire student body. OUSU has a clear role in doing this. Admittedly, it is one that is not always appropriate – attempts by some last year to adopt a university-wide stance on Gaza, for example, were misguided. However, when it comes to tuition fees, this week OUSU have carried out their job very impressively.
The central point here is not necessarily that OUSU opposes a rise in fees. Cherwell would argue that the intricacies of higher education funding are not straightforward, and merit discussion. Top class universities have to be funded somehow, and while Cherwell does not argue for a rise in fees, it does seem fair to suggest that there is a debate to be had.
The issue is rather that we are being denied the chance to make this issue part of the process that will select the next government. By launching a review that delays any recommendation until after the general election, this crucial, but politically volatile issue has been deflated on the political agenda – something which both leading parties should be all too happy about.
This is both undemocratic, and a gross insult to students everywhere. If fundamental changes to higher education are being proposed so close to an election, we deserve the right to vote on them, and OUSU was right to aid in bringing national attention to bear.
One can only hope that we will see further such examples in the future – but this paper won’t be holding its breath.