Myth 1: We get a say on OUSU’s policies in the elections every year.
In an article for this publication, Alex Bartram claimed that we already have “some kind of election where people put forward ideas which could then be voted upon by all members of OUSU”. It’s called “the OUSU elections, where, in theory, candidates talk to people beforehand, find out their concerns, put them in their manifestos, and are then elected or rejected on that basis by the electorate.”
There are three ways in which this myth needs busting.
Firstly, a shocking number of candidates in OUSU elections are unopposed, including three of this year’s sabbatical candidates. Sure, there is the option to vote to re-open nominations, but most warm-hearted people keep that for candidates who are clearly inept or inappropriate.
Secondly, even when the elections are contested, there’s typically little choice. Except on the question of how to solve OUSU’s engagement problem, barely anything divides this year’s presidential candidates: certainly not on blockbuster policy issues. In the race to be Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs, those of us who have been to the hustings have heard time and time again the line that every candidate believes education is a right and that candidates need to be judged on their experience. There aren’t big policy battles happening in the OUSU elections there rarely is a real choice.
Thirdly, OUSU’s policies are not set by its sabbatical officers; they’re set by OUSU Council. Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates highlight a few key issues they’d like to prioritise – something I’d keep the same – but Council has the last word, and many important policy issues don’t even earn a mention.
Myth 2: There’s no good reason why a voted-for manifesto would increase engagement.
There are two sides to OUSU’s engagement problem: deficiencies in communication, and high barriers to participation.
As hard as it tries, our student union finds it difficult to communicate what it’s working on. The additional publicity that could come from voting on OUSU’s policies – especially if people chose to campaign for particular policy choices, as one might imagine Oxford’s broad left doing – could help, as could any publicity around the final manifesto itself, which might become a key negotiating tool.
Making the manifesto easily accessible online would help reduce some of the informational barriers to engagement with OUSU: you could find out in a few clicks what OUSU’s position on an issue was. More significantly, however, introducing direct democracy into OUSU’s policy-making would allow students who felt strongly about particular issues to make their voice heard far more easily. A vast number of students do care about individual issues (some of the key ones for me are access, housing, homelessness, and mental health), but don’t have the time or energy to play an active role in a campaign, bring motions to OUSU Council, or become their common room’s president or OUSU rep.
Myth 3: It might not work, so we shouldn’t try.
It doesn’t matter whether, in Alex’s words, the process would “just get scrapped in a year’s time”.
Year after year, satisfaction with OUSU, participation in it, and turnout in its elections has been painfully low. No number of “more of the same” policies is going to get us out of the situation we’re in: at some point, we need to give up, get creative, and try something new.
No-one can promise that having a voted-for manifesto would solve OUSU’s problems overnight. What we can guarantee is that keeping doing what we’re doing now – or adding little quick-fix, recycled, ‘back of a cigarette packet’ patches – is not going to deliver the change our student union needs.
Myth 4: Letting liberation campaigns come up with their own methods for policy-making is equivalent to cordoning them off.
If a liberation campaign wanted to offer up its proposals for a wide open vote, I’d happily support them. If they wanted to decide on policies in their area within their working groups and campaign executives, I’d wholeheartedly support them in that too.
The broader student body shouldn’t be able to dictate to oppressed students on liberation issues, and for me that includes how they set their stances. Liberation campaigns are politically autonomous and I want to preserve their autonomy. It’s not about cordoning them off; it’s about not dictating to them or speaking over them. That’s a red line I’m not going to cross.
Myth 5: What works at other universities will work here.
Oxford has a particular kind of collegiate system, and one in which students will always engage more with their common rooms than with the university student union. If we want to increase engagement with OUSU, we need to reduce the distance between it and students. In a collegiate system there’s an extra degree of separation to bridge.
If we want to make OUSU engaging and relevant, we need to find a way that students can feel like their voices are heard and matter. That won’t happen as long as OUSU stays distant from students and carries on doing what it is doing, whether it’s engaging with them or not. The most obvious way to fix the problem is to feed students’ voices directly into OUSU’s policy-making: like a vote in a common room poll, but online and on a much bigger scale. That’s what I’m advocating.