Oxford University Student Union is often seen of as Oxford’s lesser union. With a voter turnout of 20.8 per cent in the November elections of 2013, even the colourful campaigning of eventual winner, ‘joke candidate’ Louis Trup, did not inspire Oxford’s students to get involved. Many students are unaware of what OUSU does for them as a student body, or whether it does anything at all. With Oriel College’s JCR recently voting to disaffiliate from OUSU Cherwell asks why OUSU is not taken more seriously by students it represents.
OUSU President Tom Rutland’s weekly email to students this week began with, “Thanks to the hard work and persistence of OUSU’s VP Welfare & Equal Opps (Charlotte) and VP Access & Academic Affairs (Rachel), students who suspend study will shortly be allowed access to university services including the counselling service, Bodleian libraries and the university’s online resources. These changes represent a massive win for students who take a year out from their studies.”
The news means that rusticated students will now have access to libraries and networks. Other notable successes include WomCam, whose workshops were nominated for a UK Sexual Health Award in March 2013, and the OUSU-led boycott of Sky TV which caused reduced rates for all JCR TV subscription rates in 2012.
Yet the motion proposed by Oriel student Eleanor Sharman in November to disaffiliate, seconded by 26 students, was damning of the student union. It said that the union consistently passed “inappropriate motions”, adding that it had “costs remarkably disproportionate to its effects on student life”. The motion went on to say that OUSU was “not financially accountable to college” and that the union did not “adequately represent JCRs”, finishing with the indictment that OUSU was “consistently partisan.”
Stuart Sanders, the JCR President of Trinity College, whose students voted overwhelmingly to remain disaffiliated from OUSU in Trinity 2013, explained the monetary effects of disaffiliation for Cherwell. He said, “When Trinity initially disaffiliated the move saved the JCR the cost of its affiliation fee (circa £1500 per annum), but following financial restructuring, OUSU is now funded independently of individual colleges or JCRs, and the cost is deducted from the University’s block grant to colleges. Therefore, the affiliation status of the JCR makes no financial difference (as disaffiliated JCRs effectively pay for OUSU anyway).”
Trinity and Oriel still benefit from the Sky TV deduction, as Sanders explained. “In relation to Sky TV the move involved a re-classification of JCRs to charities for the purposes of Sky. This therefore applies to all JCRs, regardless of affiliation status.” He also expressed the opinion that OUSU should not claim the success of the Sky boycott, saying, “There was considerable feeling amongst JCR Presidents at the time that the main work for that change was done by a concerted effort of JCR Presidents and that, while OUSU played a supporting role, it was inappropriate for OUSU to claim the victory as its own.
“That is not to say that OUSU does nothing (the change with respect to suspended status students, for example, was OUSU’s work). It should not be forgotten, however, that JCR Presidents meet regularly and can come together (such as over Sky TV), Trinity is always happy to engage and assist in such efforts.”
The main difference for JCRs which are disaffiliated is the foregoing of the three college votes at OUSU Council. This did not appear to be a cause for undue concern for Sanders. “Our External Affairs Rep does attend these meetings and is able to speak and amend motions (as is any individual member of OUSU). In so doing we are still able to exercise influence, as motions are decided far more by the arguments of their proponents and opponents than by the presence of three extra votes one way or another.”
While JCRs as autonomous bodies can disaffiliate from OUSU, JCR members remain students of Oxford, and as such continue to be represented individually by OUSU.
OUSU currently backs eleven campaigns, including the LGBTQ Campaign and Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, to the Women’s Campaign and the Mind Your Head mental health campaign. Oxford’ student radio, Oxide, is also funded by OUSU. Ben Jones, a Keble student who presents the show ‘Ben til ten’ told Cherwell he was “absolutely loving” working with Oxide. He said, “They give anyone the opportunity to have their own show which I think is great. Being able to present a show means I can develop my communication skills and have a clear insight into what a future career in broadcasting would be like.”
However, he also thought that the money given by OUSU was insufficient. “I think that OUSU should devote so many more resources to Oxide – at the moment you have to rely on word of mouth and family/friends/college people to publicise and listen to your show. Oxide could play a much bigger role in student life as the official radio station of Oxford students, but its lack of funding mean it doesn’t have the opportunity. Twinned with this is the need for it to be broadcast on FM radio as well, though cost effectiveness would need to be taken into account I guess. I don’t know much about OUSU’s budget which I’m sure is the same for the majority of the student body – and whether this is a problem of disengagement or a problem of lack of transparency I don’t know.”
The extent of some students’ antipathy towards OUSU became apparent in the 2013 OUSU election. In the run-up to the 2013 election, OUSU President- Elect Louis Trup, was highly critical of those who ran for OUSU election in slates, describing the “political bubble” in OUSU. He wrote, “This bubble in Oxford is why the Labour slate wins these elections. About 50 people, normally from OULC, get behind a slate, knock on doors, steal website designs, and the little army of people chanting slogans like ‘change’ march right up to your door and either piss you off or steal your tea. Slates are undemocratic.”
Trup has promised to bring about an end to this kind of politics. He received 1685 votes, in comparison to Jane Cahill with 975. The result might reflect the view of most students. As Sanders , Trinity JCR President, argues, “There seems to be an attitude among some at OUSU of ‘Why remain disaffiliated when it doesn’t make much difference?’ To us at Trinity that approaches the matter from the wrong side; we are currently disaffiliated, OUSU should provide some reason for us to change that status and re-affiliate.”