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Why the SU failed (and how we’ll fix it)

“People may say the SU is unsalvageable. In the current system, they may be right. But… through fundamental reforms, it can change.” – Danial Hussain, Presidential Campaign Manifesto. 

When I wrote those lines, I was in the same boat as many students are now, feeling both disillusioned and disappointed with the Student Union (SU). 

Disillusioned because the SU’s engagement with the average student seemingly amounted to little more than a free pizza voucher at the Freshers’ Fair – a symbol of its distant and seemingly unimportant role in the broader university experience. 

Disappointed because I firmly believed the SU was meant to be much more than this. It seemed natural that in a university of 39 distinct colleges, a collective student voice through the SU could wield more significant influence than the isolated efforts of any individual common room. Yet, this vast potential was going unrecognised, which was a disservice to the students. 

So, to help bring about the change I believed was necessary, I decided to run for President. 

Once elected, it quickly became clear that I had underestimated the magnitude of the task at hand. Systemic factors, which I thought could be an asset in improving the SU, were actually holding back much of the necessary change. 

Yet, at the same time, it was clear that there was a route to overcoming them. Working with Campaigns, Sabbatical Officers, JCRs, and MCRs demonstrated how Oxford has so many talented, ambitious people working individually to make things better for all of us. The SU just needed a better structure to channel this commitment and enthusiasm together, so I got to work.

Now, just over a year after my election, the SU has announced its Transformation Plan, which has two simple aims: to resolve the systemic issues and unleash the SU’s potential. 

What’s holding the SU back?

Election after election, the pattern seems to repeat: candidates pledge to reform and increase engagement in the SU, only to leave students disappointed by the absence of real change and cementing a sense of scepticism about whether the SU can genuinely reform. 

I felt it too, and that’s precisely why the SU has introduced the Transformation Plan. It isn’t a quick fix for recent problems or a response the university has insisted on. The plan reflects months of dedicated work, initiated by my push for an independent review of the SU, and now acted upon by the Trustee Board and staff. 

We aim to tackle the the core issues at the heart of the SU – which are the cause of this recurring cycle of promises and unfulfilled expectations – head on, with a concrete pathway to change. The issues which perpetuate these systemic challenges are twofold: a lack of a clear identity as well as an inadequate institutional structure.

1. Lack of Identity 

The SU has an identity problem: students, Sabbatical Officers, the SU, and the University all have different ideas of what it should be. 

This ambiguity harms everyone involved. For example, while students elect Sabbatical Officers based on manifesto pledges, the University primarily sees their job as representing students on various committees. This discrepancy results in officers having limited time beyond their committee responsibilities to deliver the campaign promises that students rightfully have voted on – fuelling student resentment and eroding their trust in the SU’s effectiveness.

Similar confusion characterises the relationship between the SU and Common Rooms. Given the SU’s unclear identity, students often struggle to understand its role alongside already supportive JCRs and MCRs. This ambiguity can lead to missed opportunities where the SU could provide valuable assistance in ways the common rooms cannot- such as our independent advice service. 

Ultimately, these overlaps and lack of clarity make it challenging to recognise the contributions of the SU, and lead some students to question whether it is necessary at all. They also results in JCRs and MCRs being left without the support they may need. [AS1] 

2. Inadequate Institutional Structure 

Issues of identity are exacerbated by the current structure of the SU. The fundamental problem is that the structure of the SU mirrors the structure of other students’ unions across the country, which doesn’t fit well with Oxford’s unique needs. Our decentralised collegiate system clashes with the SU’s centralised approach, making it ill-suited to address the specific demands of Oxford students effectively. 

While Student Unions are the primary student body in most universities, Oxford, through its collegiate system, also provides student engagement through its common rooms. JCRs and MCRs serve as students’ main points of contact, possessing insights into student life that the SU, as a centralised body, often lacks. However, despite these advantages, the JCRs and MCRs are not directly involved in the SU’s operations or decision-making processes. 

Consequently, the SU’s ability to effectively represent students is ultimately constrained, as it does not fully leverage the unique strengths of our collegiate system. 

Is the SU necessary? 

If you’ve agreed with my points so far you might wonder why I’m still in favour of keeping the SU. I’ve argued that the SU is structurally inadequate to address the needs of Oxford students and that some of these are met by the common rooms anyway. So, surely, we should just get rid of it, right? 

Well, no

There’s a difference between labelling the SU unnecessary and labelling it ineffective. Just because the SU hasn’t fulfilled its potential in a collegiate system, doesn’t mean it never can. On the contrary, I believe Oxford needs an SU specifically because of its collegiate system. 

Oxford has 26,000 students dispersed among 39 colleges which are organisationally isolated from one another. If the SU could adequately integrate the common rooms into its governing structure, we could capitalise on the benefits of decentralisation, becoming a far more effective and efficient system than non-collegiate structured Students’ Unions. 

The SU could utilise common rooms to pinpoint student priorities and focus on projects that reflect those needs. This strategy would also give students and common rooms a strong incentive to engage, as the SU would address issues they care about. It would also mean the SU can collect data from all the colleges and lobby students at the most grassroots level, building support first on a college level – empowering students to advocate for change very effectively. 

This grassroots approach is far harder to achieve at non-collegiate universities and impossible when no central Students’ Union exists. However, before these benefits are realised, addressing the pressing structural concerns by rethinking how such an SU could look is imperative. 

What should the identity of the SU be? 

Oxford SU is different from most Students’ Unions. Operating within a collegiate system, there is already student representation in the form of common rooms in every college. Our SU must supplement their strengths and recognise their limitations. [AS2] [AS3] 

1. Making Common Rooms as effective as possible 

At Oxford, common rooms manage responsibilities that a traditional Student Union would. Students run for these positions because they care about their colleges, but might not have the right experience or training. There is an opportunity here for the SU to leverage its collective strength in helping common rooms fulfil their roles. 

This means offering training for all officers, ensuring they have the right skills to excel in their positions, compiling data between all the colleges so each common room has all the information it might need, and, when necessary, supporting common rooms when they are in conflict with their college and need independent advice. 

2. Supporting students beyond the colleges 

As integral as colleges are to Oxford life, students’ experiences extend beyond them. Issues can extend between colleges (such as college disparities), courses, and departments. There are also communities other than colleges, such as the socio-economically disadvantaged and those from specific ethnic backgrounds. Representation is needed in all these aspects of Oxford, and the SU should be there to provide it. 

Similarly, it’s important to remember that the colleges, as a collective, also constitute a broader community – the University. This broader entity needs student representatives to lobby for our interests, influencing critical university-wide issues such as access policies and environmental goals. The SU can serve as a central link between colleges, unifying and advocating for student interests in a way that ensures long-term, sustained influence over the University. 

What structure should the SU have? 

A new structure is needed to reflect this SU’s identity. This approach would integrate Common Rooms directly into the SU’s decision-making framework and enable all students to advocate and lobby the University and Colleges on issues important to them. This would ensure that the SU remains responsive to student concerns and actively involves them in shaping policies. Such a setup would also allow for policy development over a number of years, making lobbying far more effective. 

Moreover, this revised structure will enhance the SU’s transparency and accountability, keeping it open to constructive scrutiny from students. It will also preserve the SU’s independence from the University while fostering a stable, constructive relationship. 

Only by adapting the institutional structure, incentives, and culture of the SU can we ensure that it works for students and is attentive to our real day-to-day concerns. In the process of designing the new structure, you will have a say – we will be holding open consultations during Trinity Term in which you can offer feedback and help us make the SU work for you. The SU is at a crossroads, and you have the power to determine where it goes. 

Where we are now 

I hope I have shown that the SU can reform and that students will be represented far more effectively when it does. To get there, the SU has already made difficult yet necessary decisions. 

First, we have significantly reduced and repurposed the staff team. Given the ambitious scale of the ‘Transformation Plan,’ we are concentrating our efforts solely on this major reform and our essential activities. This reallocation of resources is crucial as it lays the groundwork for a long-term solution for the SU, ensuring that the transformation reforms are both effective and enduring. 

The second is reducing the number of sabbatical officers by half for the 2024/25 academic year. Let me be absolutely clear; this measure does not reflect the capabilities or performance of any individual officers. The reality is that the SU has spread itself too thin over recent years, leaving it unable to offer the right professional and personal support to Sabbatical Officers, and by association, to students. Our commitment is clear: such failures must never happen again and the only way to ensure that, at least initially, is to reduce the sabbatical officer team. 


To all those who were like me – disillusioned and disappointed by the SU – now is the time to get involved. 

I have always believed that the SU could be so much more, and we now have a unique opportunity to realise its full potential. Only then can we build an SU that represents the very best of our university and its students. 

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