You see their faces on the Students’ Union website, plastered on the walls of the Union. Perhaps you’ve seen posters and banners hanging around campus encouraging you to vote for them, making pledges and promises in their manifestos. These are your Students’ Union officers, and as students at the University of Manchester, you have elected them as you elect them each year.
However, if I were to stand on Oxford Road and ask random students passing by if they can name at least three officers, and tell me what they do — or what they represent — I doubt that many would be able to.
The University of Manchester has eight full-time, paid officer roles: the General Secretary, and the Community, Diversity, Education, Campaigns, Activities and Development, Wellbeing, and Women’s Officers. These individuals, usually second or third-year students when they stand to be officers, take a year out or apply to be officers after graduating.
Their jobs are to represent the interests of almost 40,000 students by organising events, campaigning, and lobbying for policies to improve student life. They meet with student groups, societies and committees, senior members of staff at the university, other university reps and officers, and even members of local government, as part of their jobs.
It sounds impressive, but if students don’t know who they are — if only 16 per cent of students are voting in the elections — there is a problem.
As I know many of the current Exec officers personally, I have them as friends on Facebook and have noticed a trend… they all seem to know each other. Not just Exec officers at the University of Manchester, but officers at other universities as well. In between campaign posts and updates, their social media posts are peppered with inside jokes, tagging each other in pictures and status updates.
Although it’s great that the officers are connected, collaborating and supporting each other, and many of them are friends, a bubble begins to form. Officers remain connected to other officers, student activists, students on society committees or Union related projects, and the bubble is soon sealed.
Students who have no idea who they are or what they do are often daunted by their already established, close-knit community of more involved and active students. I speak from first-hand experience having been one of these intimidated, and disinterested students myself last year.
The only reason I know some officers is because I happened to see a post on a Facebook group looking for a student to report on the Student Union Exec election hustings for The Mancunion, which I live-blogged. It gave me insight into what exactly they were vying for and who they were.
Of the thousands of students in Manchester, a handful was present. Reporting gave me an excuse to speak to them and get to know some of them, and this connection has made me realise that more students need to care. More students need to be curious and ask questions, veering away from the disinterested, nonplussed attitude that student politics is somehow irrelevant to them.
The gap between SU Exec officers and students has created an unsettling lack of accountability. Although internal Union committees review and scrutinise officers’ progress, including officers having to produce a 2,000-word report, very few students have direct access to officers.
Students on Senate committees do have the opportunity to channel their opinions, ideas, and questions at officers, but due to the perceived distance between students and the Union, not many volunteer to sit on these committees. The process is hardly selective, which compromises the value and extent of wider student input and engagement in the accountability process.
Simply put, fewer students care about student politics, feeling that it is disillusioned and distanced from the people, and therefore are also apathetic to the process. This compromises the value of having a democratic Student Union. What is a democracy without the people? A bureaucracy.
Only students on ‘the inside’, those who manage to permeate the bubble, get involved in, and understand Union officer politics, roles, and decisions, are likely to have their voices heard. These insiders are more likely to run for such positions, and the bubble grows smaller. Fewer students vote, fewer students run, fewer students care.
This happens at a larger scale too with elected representatives of the National Union of Students often being former officers who were friends of former officers, and eventually, we end up with an organisation of people who have been in student politics longer than they have been students themselves.
How then, can they sufficiently represent students? Granted, this is a generalisation — albeit one based on a lot of observation — and many seasoned and experienced officers and representatives become who they are from being ‘insiders’. The gap is nevertheless growing bigger, and this is increasingly worrying.
Like global politics, student politics matters. In the past, Student Union Exec officers have successfully achieved getting the living wage and boycotting the NSS. They also campaign on safety in Fallowfield, sexual harassment on campus, supporting lecturers on strike, and improving education.
Student voices are important to make sure that these policies represent the majority, and to hold officers to account for their work. The recent Shakira Martin scandal is a perfect example of what happens when senior elected officials are not held to account.
The onus is on the Students’ Union to make sure that the word gets out there, and that their officers are actively engaging with students to promote their work, and the work of the Union. I was surprised by a poster I saw recently, encouraging students to stand in Exec elections – emphasising the pay, and asking ‘Are you tired of being a student already?’.
You know students are disengaged when you have to wave money in their faces and make an important democratic position seem like a break from studies. More students need to be engaged, and asking who their officers are and what they do. More students need to vote. This is your university, this is your Union, and these are your officers.