The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Colm, swipe right on the Students’ Union

Activites and Development Officer Joel Smith offers a reply to recent attacks on the Students’ Union

By

I opened last week’s excellent Mancunion to find a piece by Colm Lock from the Conservative Future society criticising some aspects of the Students’ Union. It’s likely that as a result of his political leaning he will continue to be fundamentally displeased by the Union’s actions, but I would like to respond to some points. Despite highlighting the issue of free speech as a means to rubbish the Union, statistics from this year show students are more involved with the SU than ever before. It is not the disconnected hard-left organisation you have been presented in Lock’s piece.

I have seen the Union come a long way over the six years since I arrived in Manchester. When I started here, the building was entirely purple and claustrophobic. The only food on offer was a school dinner-style canteen on the first floor—it took me a year to return to the building after this experience.

The Union has been on an upward trajectory ever since, and now there’s more students engaged in what we do than ever before; in total, 11,567 students hold 29,048 society memberships (over 25 per cent of students), election turnout last year was double the year previously (setting a national record for highest ever Union election turnout) and election candidates standing this year are double last year.

These aren’t all “communist” students standing for election. Of the 18 standing for Activities & Development officer, none are people I would associate with traditional “student activism”. All have found their way to leading this organisation through different routes; be that through chairing societies, being in RAG, Access All Areas or Student Action, being involved in Pangaea, or simply having joined a society at the start of the year.

To continue to view the Union through a lens of right-wing critique of its very existence is nonsense. This Union is a broad church with hundreds of societies, hundreds of staff, thousands of reps and tens of thousands of students involved, working for the betterment of student life here in Manchester. This is not some administrative body that concerns itself daily with the only issues seen in the press. This is a place with infinite potential for people to grow and discover.

Whilst all criticism is welcome, I would rebut Lock’s suggestion that our organisation fails “to stand up for rights of students”. In fact, this really is our raison d’être. Presenting some of our recent key campaigns:

–          Supporting medical students campaigning against changes to Junior Doctors’ contracts, with over 1200 medical students annually standing to benefit from any ground that can be made in preventing dangerous contract changes.

–          Our Community Officer has been organising with residents around the standards and management of housing in the private rented sector. As a result the council will pilot three selective licencing schemes. If rolled out across the city the scheme would radically improve conditions for students and others.

–          Printing & binding dissertations will now be free as a result of the Education Officer’s work.

–          Last year we fought the university’s attempts to change discipline procedures for students in their homes off campus.

–          Our Women’s campaign has gone from strength to strength; the student support worker at Manchester Rape Crisis is perhaps the biggest success this year. (It’s ironic that Lock would highlight the campaign against cuts to women’s services whilst supporting a government implementing such horrific changes in this area. But I thank him nonetheless.)

–          A massive voter registration drive last year, which was totally non-partisan and focused on engaging students with citizenship and empowering them politically.

–          Successfully campaigning for postgrad education to be more inclusive by getting the proposed age cap for loans lifted.

–          Campaigning against the government’s Prevent strategy which seeks to divide BME communities and infringes upon the rights of students.

–          Campaigning by the Exec Team the year before last led to the university meeting the costs of the £1.1 million cut to the National Scholarship Programme that Lock’s party, the Conservatives, removed from the Higher Education budget—a £100 million cut nationally.

This is only a fraction of the amazing campaigning done by our societies and students with support from the Union.

It’s incredibly disingenuous to suggest that the cost of the Exec Team is large in the scale of the Union and could instead fund bursaries. We are the very people consistently standing up for bursaries and financial provision for students.

Specifically looking at the protest at the Conservative Party Conference, this was the first action in our democratically approved Grants Not Loans campaign seeking to save maintenance grants. Our officers met three different Members of Parliament before Christmas and urged them not to scrap maintenance grants. As a result of this government’s actions nearly a million of the UK’s poorest students will now leave Higher Education around £12,500 more debt than otherwise. This is clearly an issue the Students’ Union should campaign on. It will fundamentally affect university in the same way that tripling tuition fees did in 2010 and this campaign would happen no matter the political party advocating such a change.

Obviously Lock has chosen to disengage from our democracy and, without turning this comment into simply more literature for the free speech debate, in last week’s third ever Senate—which was not designed by the Exec Team as suggested—the first item for discussion was around changing the Free Speech policy. This motion passed with amendments and we now have a new collaborative process for visiting speakers that will allow more easy facilitation of difficult debates, with ‘banning’ of speakers now only possible with approval from the Senate.

This is just one issue that was discussed and the “Ideas” process is open to any student—meaning ANYONE can submit an idea for discussion. To Lock I would say, if you aren’t happy with what’s being discussed or what we’re campaigning on, why don’t you come along or submit your campaign idea on our website? There is already a good spectrum of political opinion at the Senate but if you really want your voice to be heard in the Union then why don’t you use it rather than positioning yourself at the outside and acting as just another keyboard warrior?

The Senate has led to increased interest in the work of the Officers, increased participation in our decision making processes, and above all, increased transparency about what the officers are working on and why. On top of this, officers are subject to scrutiny multiple times a year by an elected committee who are provided with a detailed report on the work of the officers, followed by interviewing the officers on what they’ve been doing. To wade into this debate without explaining this process is more than unhelpful, it’s deliberately misleading. Dismissing the Union as unrepresentative and disconnected whilst simultaneously attacking the procedures we’re putting in place to improve this is quite baffling.

Regarding the suggestion that “Winchester have got it right” with their three full-time and nine part-time sabbatical officers, I would hasten to point out that with 6,430 students, were we to have the same officer-to-student ratio here in Manchester, we would have 20 full-time officers instead of our current eight.

It was also argued that we shouldn’t have food at the Senate. Last year we had a system where 20 unelected, randomly selected students voted on all the issues and were paid £20 per event in order to participate. We now have over 50 students—including some randomly selected to represent a range of student views—and we give everyone food to say thank you for participating in the evening. This is at a lower cost and with higher engagement than last year’s system. The food is bought internally so all profit, as with all commercial activity in the Union, goes back into growing our support for students.

On holding the university to task over the new screen on the Ali G building: to be frank, the screen is bought, there’s little we could do to lobby against this now, it’s simply a case of picking our battles—there are far more important things negatively impacting students right now. Lock has suggested that we don’t lobby the university on issues which affect students. I hope I’ve made clear this is untrue.

On the specific point of improving the Union building, we have successfully lobbied for millions of pounds towards the £8 million Union expansion which is set to commence in November. This will see a transformation of the building, taking on board feedback from thousands of students to massively improve the services and support we provide to students. I can’t wait to see this next step forward.

In summary, I disagree with most of things Lock has said, but if he really feels like this organisation doesn’t represent him then he should get involved rather than just whining. It’s also worth highlighting the irony of using a fully Union-funded platform to make this case against us. I won’t pretend the Union doesn’t have work to do but if YOU want to improve it then get involved and make it happen. This really is your Union!

  • Sally Metcalfe

    Joel Smith votes Green. Case closed.

  • adam

    “if he really feels like this organisation doesn’t represent him then he should get involved rather than just whining” – Bit of a facile point Joel. Writing in the student newspaper about an issue that effects students is “getting involved”. It is highlighting an issue for the wider student population. If it wasn’t written about, how does such ideas gain publicity?

  • Lewis

    “I have seen the Union come a long way over the six years since I arrived in Manchester. When I started here, the building was entirely purple…”
    Shock horror! I’m so glad that the first point Joel raises is that the SU stood up for itself and covered up the ghastly purple paint. You can always tell an organisation is making progress when they decide to repaint the building.

  • john

    The problem with the exec is transparency. You so wonderfully say: “This Union is a broad church with hundreds of societies, hundreds of staff, thousands of reps and tens of thousands of students involved, working for the betterment of student life here in Manchester. ” Overlooking the disconcerting use of the word ‘church’, the problem is just that – there are so many people engaged; but the exec only seems to represents opinions IT agrees with, fights battles that it likes the look off, ideologies that appeal to it. It doesn’t work for what the broad student population want, or even the majority want. I don’t think the exec know that, it’s never asked. It appears to do what it wants and the senate add insult to injury pretending to be able to offer some form of influence and engagement with the exec that everyone knows it doesn’t. If the SU actually was democratic then rather than decide its objective and then manufacture approval for them, it would allow students to discuss, debate, vote etc. on issues they viewed as most important and see those plans put into action, become part of putting them into action, that would be a step in the right direction. People would know what the exec do, there would be huge banners with all the projects that student run and the exec ASSIST with. The exec have a problem with transparency and publicity. Nobody knows what the exec do, and when they do things (not denying you guys do) nobody knows about that either. So to many it feel like you exist in an ivory tower.