Casting a long shadow over Oxford Road, for fifty weeks of the year our Students’ Union stands imposingly but with all the character of a drab Soviet-style monolith. Over the coming fortnight, the Steve Biko Building will be afforded a rare splash of colour as election candidates plaster over the grey façade with hastily-painted bed sheets bearing ‘punbelievable’ slogans.
Planning on sidestepping the election fever? Think again. If the multitude of banners and posters are not enough to permeate your consciousness (and trust me, they will – try going to the toilet on campus over the next two weeks without forcibly staring at some manifesto or other), leaflets will be thrust towards you from every direction, advertising candidates for positions you didn’t even know existed. Leaving the library will become akin to running the gauntlet.
You could, of course, try walking briskly through the mêlée with your gaze fixed firmly on the concrete, but still you will not escape. Each morning, virtually every pavement within striking distance of the University will be covered in scrawled chalk markings, only for the infamous Manchester rain to descend each afternoon and wash away the graffiti. The futility of it all – a metaphor, the cynics would doubtless suggest, for student politics itself.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. 47 candidates are set to do battle over eight coveted positions on next year’s University of Manchester Students’ Union executive, with voting opening on Friday morning. To some extent, the election will be a referendum on the record of the current executive; those standing are likely to have a view on the successes of their predecessors, but will inevitably be keen to position themselves in terms of how they believe they can take things forward.
The Class of 2013/14 should now have all of the tools to do so. Purely in terms of facilities, the Union building itself has been improved exponentially since I arrived in Manchester back in the dark ages of September 2009. The ground floor had long been a decrepit husk, and twelve months ago it lay empty as work began on transforming the space into the sparkling environment we have at our disposal today.
Manchester SU, for so long an area which students shied away from, has been rejuvenated as a result of multi-million pound investment. The area now radiates warmth, encouraging people who never would have set foot in the building previously to pop in for a coffee between lectures. Superficial? Perhaps, but this will undoubtedly lend itself to establishing the Students’ Union as the epicentre of university democracy that we rightly expect.
Nonetheless, it is not always entirely clear what the Union is for – or, for that matter, what the executive are working towards on a day-to-day basis. Alex Peters-Day, outgoing General Secretary of the London School of Economics (LSE) Students’ Union, is unequivocal about how she sees the role of Unions across the country.
“Some people say SU’s shouldn’t be political. Tell that to the students who queued through the night to register with the police due to the UK Border Agency’s draconian visa regulations; to the students who have their living grants cut whilst paying extortionate fees; to liberation officers who transform students’ lives both on and off campus,” she argues.
Ms Peters-Day continues, forcefully: “Student politics genuinely has the power to change the world. Unions are political entities; their sole reason for existence is campaigning for better rights for students.”
In September, a second fresh-faced cohort of undergraduates paying £9,000 per year for the privilege of studying here will land; quite rightly, they will be demanding more for their money. It is a salient fact which will undoubtedly see students lobbying their Union for a higher quality of teaching spread over more contact hours, and that in turn will see expectations of our student officers soar.
With this in mind, it is both hoped and anticipated that there will be a marked improvement on last year’s unspectacular turnout of 7,953 students when the polls close on March 14. If a surge in participation materialises, significant scrutiny will be trained on the manifestos of those who emerge victorious; the next executive will not necessarily inherit the cushy number some of them might be expecting.
“Being in a leadership position comes with many, many negative points,” Ms Peters-Day tells me, confirming my suspicion that the role of student officer is a thankless task on some levels.
“From students who take it upon themselves to declare some sort of personal vendetta against you, to not really having much of a ‘private life’, the whole experience can be a little draining and you end up involved in a lot of trivial rubbish from time to time.”
Nor is it a path to riches, with the bounty for members of the University of Manchester exec set at just £16,600 per year. Some will take a sabbatical from their degree to take up the role; others will postpone the end of their student days for one final year.
Whilst the majority of those involved harbour laudable aims and care passionately about their ‘zones’, student politicians have long had their underlying motives questioned. If, as Henry Kissinger famously put it, “university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,” there are bound to be politicians-in-training lurking amongst their more benevolent colleagues.
Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, who studied Law and French at the University of Manchester just over a decade ago, felt this more keenly than most. He told The Mancunion last year: “I never got majorly involved in the internal Students’ Union politics, because – maybe slightly cynically so – I thought there were too many people involved with it who were career politicians, who were more interested in the arguing amongst each other as opposed to actually acting as a voice and representing the students they purported to speak for.”
It is something which Alex Peters-Day, herself a Students’ Union President, has recognised. “I think there can be some people who see being an SU officer as ‘playing politics’, in that it’s a place where they can practice their lobbying skills or public speaking,” she regrets. “It’s a real shame because in actuality student politicians can be some of the most talented people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.”
Liam Burns, soon-to-be former NUS President, gave The Mancunion a slightly different take on the issue. “The idea that someone would be President of a Students’ Union purely on the back of career prospects is ridiculous, because the opportunity cost of doing it is massive. You do it because you’re passionate and you want to change things for students. I can assure you I’m paid a shit wage, I work ridiculous hours – as do everyone in this building – and as do sabbatical student officers.”
That said, Burns is honest enough to accept that personal ambition played at least some part in his ascent to the top of NUS. “I think it would be disingenuous to say that you don’t look at these things,” he admits.
As you might expect, Manchester SU has provided a springboard for the careers of several illustrious public figures. Veteran newsreader Anna Ford, who went on to hold the Chancellorship of the University of Manchester, has cited her time as a student officer as a huge fillip for her career. “I was offered jobs by the BBC when I graduated from university in 1966, simply because I’d been President of the Students’ Union,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last year. “I was continually being asked down the road in Manchester to their studios to explain what was happening in the student world, so they knew who I was.”
Paul Monaghan, now Head of Sustainable Development at the Co-operative, graduated from campaigning for university campuses to boycott Lloyds and Midland banks in protest at third world debt levels, to find himself at the forefront of the ethical banking sector. Meanwhile Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of the charity SCOPE, has drawn on his time as President of the SU from 1986-88 in leading the fight against government cuts to disability benefits.
Of course, there are politicians aplenty amongst our SU alumni. Labour MPs Phil Woolas and John Mann both served on the executive, as did the party’s one-time political advisor Derek Draper. More recently, former Cabinet minister Liam Byrne fulfilled the now-defunct role of Communications Officer. It is a touch ironic, given his Students’ Union portfolio, that Byrne is now infamous for a misjudged piece of communication; a note left to his successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which read, ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left. Good luck!’ Tongue-in-cheek, certainly, but ill-timed in the midst of a deep and painful recession.
For all of the career considerations and status calculations – never underestimate the future politician’s desire to be a ‘big name on campus’ – it is the intrinsic value of the role which drives most of those who stand in student elections. Despite misgivings over her years in student politics, Ms Peters-Day tells me: “I love the diversity of the things that I work on. In any given day I might be chairing a meeting, picking out artwork for a campaign, meeting with senior figures in the university and community, supporting our liberation officers and holding a society event briefing. You do such a lot and no day is the same, which is really exciting.”
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