Why are students disinterested in the Students’ Union?
Student voting remained low for this year’s Students’ Union Executive Officer elections, with a turnout of just 19.8 per cent. Although higher than last year’s 16 per cent, it was a lot lower than 2015’s peak turnout of 34.4 per cent.
Yet, these statistics don’t seem reflective of the volume of students concerned by recent issues across campus and student areas of the city that SU officers are positioned to address.
During a semester which has seen students riled by the disruption of the UCU strikes, the closure of Antwerp Mansion, ongoing safety concerns in Fallowfield, and thousands taking to the streets of the university campaigning against sexual violence and gender discrimination, what is preventing students from voting in the elections where candidates have explicitly outlined their proposals to confront these issues?
After speaking to students, there seems to be a general lack in understanding about the role the Students’ Union plays and its power as an institution to impose change on campus. Despite being the largest Students’ Union in the country, many I spoke to admitted to only entering the the Students’ Union building for a coffee or a slice of cake, or not at all.
Many remain blissfully unaware of the services it offers: a platform for creating campaigns and funding opportunities, student media outlets, advice on academia/finance/housing/wellbeing, supporting the wide range of societies on campus, volunteering and charity work, a resource hub providing training from finance to fundraising, an Insight Department conducting research related to students and lots more. This may be a vital reason for poor voter turnout, as many students remain disengaged in the functioning of the Students’ Union.
Students also expressed doubt in the Exec officers’ ability to make a difference, and believed the painfully slow process of changing things at university made voting “pointless.” As many students feel little has been done recently in relation to the strikes they have started to question their capacity to intervene. Third year student Rebecca Neary commented that changes will be made long after they have left so voting won’t make any difference to their life at university.
Another belief expressed was that the members of the Exec team are unrelatable — that they are too broad in their plans, and the ways they will go about issues are unclear.
Anthony Menezes ran for Activities and Development Officer, but lost to Lizzy Haughton by 20 votes. He told The Mancunion: “students are completely indifferent to who wins the annual exec elections. This is because there is a growing divide between officers and students students don’t feel like they can easily communicate with an officer if they have an issue. There aren’t enough opportunities for the students and officers to mingle.”
During the campaign, he said he tried to remain approachable and emphasised he would remain so if successful.
When speaking to students who did vote, the majority did so because they knew a friend campaigning and so voted for them, not necessarily because of their plans when running.
Student Hattie Willicombe said, “I voted because they were giving out free lollypops”, and Saskia Casanova added: “I voted because I got a free cupcake”. When talking further to these students they revealed that their voting was random and they only did so because of the free food.
However, they did express an interest in the elections but felt it was difficult to find information on the candidates and suggested that perhaps a campaign video would be useful to watch which goes through the candidates individually. They felt that coming in during lectures and shouting information was not effective in trying to gain votes.
Alex Tayler, the outgoing General Secretary, told The Mancunion after this year’s election that he was impressed with the results, despite the turnout percentage not matching up to other universities.
“Given the issues around the building works, strike action, and terrible weather, I think it’s impressive that we’ve managed to increase on last year.”
He added that another factor may have been that “some people were put off by the crap that comes with student politics”.