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28th February 2024

The paradoxes of student democracy

Low engagement in student democracy leads to expectations that are both too high and both too low – why? They promise the impossible, and don’t deliver
The paradoxes of student democracy
Students’ Union. Credit: The Mancunion

The Mancunion conducted a small but insightful poll last week. Interviewers went around, showing people photos of the Exec officers, and asked them ‘Do you know who these people are?’ Almost nobody knew. More concerning, however, is that some were equally confused by the explanation. Despite the huge LeadMCR signs that have been plastered around the Students’ Union the last few weeks, it’s become clear that to many, they’re merely decor on the walls; because people aren’t even aware what an Exec officer is. The problem with this? It leads to some odd paradoxes in our student democracy.

If you’re not ‘in the know’ – an Exec officer is an elected post at the Students’ Union for one, or two years. They represent students on a variety of issues. Incidentally – there’s another set of elections in the coming months. You should vote.

To return to the issue at hand: nobody knows who or what an Exec officer is – but Manchester’s actually not a particularly good example of this. At the last elections, 10000 students – that’s 20% of the student population – voted. Concerningly, that’s comparatively very high; Durham, for example, saw just 6% engagement.

The lack of knowledge creates an odd problem. First, if only one in five people voting is considered high, the elections are a really poor representation of what students want. There’s no avoiding this, even if non-participation is politically rebellious – the argument that no vote at all is an active choice is defeated by the students who don’t even engage enough to know that there are elections.

As for the apathy and general disenfranchisement of those who do know about the elections? I think we can safely attribute some portion of this to a general belief that the officers don’t do much. I’m not saying there’s no truth somewhere in this – you only have to take a brief look at the Students’ Union website to see that there appears to be a big discrepancy between the amount done by different officers.

At the same time, the last iteration of officers managed to persuade senior management to give the largest cost-of-living support package – (remember that £170?) – of any university in the country. It’s hard to argue that that’s not doing anything. But the belief persists – how else do you explain such low engagement?

Paradoxically, though, this lack of belief that it matters leads to a huge lack of understanding in what they can do. People don’t believe they can do anything, but they expect far too much. Officers are so often elected on what are largely impossible promises.

Katie Jackson, our current Humanities Officer, was elected in part on a promise to rid us of the dreaded 9ams. The problem with this? It’s impossible. When I asked her, in a forthcoming ‘scrutiny’ interview with Fuse TV, why there seemed to be no progress on this, she explained with a fascinating stat that she had been told when she raised this in her first weeks on the job: if you were to take everybody’s module combinations and their timetabling possibilities, and write them on the Engineering building, in size 12 font, they wouldn’t fit. Not even close.

It’s just the way my homegirl Molly-Mae would say it: the reason for our 9a.m. starts and 6p.m. finishes is that we all have the same 24 hours in a day. (You see, if we had 25 or 26, we’d be able to start later than 9a.m., but then 9a.m wouldn’t be the same, and so it wouldn’t matter.) As Katie Jackson discovered, therefore, our timetables are restricted by the physics of our universe.

I digress. The point is: impossible promises are a fault of the system – you can’t know what’s possible until you’re elected.

And it’s not a one-off. You simply can’t promise to single-handedly take on the marketisation of higher education. It’s an admirable aim, but the neo-liberal machine that we’ve come to call a ‘university’ is perhaps too big a problem for eight 21-year-olds on £25k a year to tackle.

All in all, these problems compound each other. People promise more than is possible under the current system, but then it doesn’t happen, so we, the voting public, shrug and conclude that nothing’s possible. They then don’t vote. Both of these problems – the simultaneous over-expectation and under-expectation, result from a lack of understanding. So, what do we do?

First: engage. In the upcoming elections – vote! Read manifestos carefully, talk to people, engage with them, ask them questions about the problems that you’re facing as a student at Manchester. In an ideal world, voter choice would constitute more than merely how attractive you find a candidate. (This isn’t a hypothetical – several people have confessed to me that it’s the guiding principle of their vote). But this situation isn’t ideal in either turnout or electoral knowledge.

And if what a campaigner promises sounds too good to be true? It probably is.

Jacob Hartley

Jacob Hartley

co-Managing Editor (News and Current Affairs)

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