By Caredig Ap Tomos
Cast your mind back to the beginning of Lent 2021; a period when England was in its second national lockdown and everyone but a select few forced to study from home. Many were forced to study in inadequate conditions as many colleges refused to allow students to return to their accommodation without substantial evidence that their homelives were unbearable, evidence that many could not reasonably provide. What was the SU council doing at the time? Debating a motion on supporting a university wide rent strike; calling for students to withhold rent payments for accommodation they already weren’t paying for because of the lockdown.
For those not as involved in student politics, the SU student council is a committee consisting of 96 members (8 sabbatical officers (sabbs), 11 campaign reps, 11 academic reps, 4 executive reps and 62 J/MCR reps) who debate, vote on and therefore dictate SU policy and actions. Meetings are held on a bi-weekly basis where any student may propose a motion for the council to consider. Any motion that is passed by this committee, with a few exceptions, is binding and must be carried out by the SU.
It has been just under a year and a half since I participated in the debate on the rent strike; the first debate of my career on student council. Much has changed since then with student council, but a lot has stayed the same. Attendance has dropped to half of that when I first began, to as low as 18/96 reps in some cases, debates are more one sided than ever as dissenting voices have either retired and not been replaced or simply lost interest in attending.
At this point I’m sure you’re thinking “Why should I care?”. The majority of the university at this point are at best apathetic to the students union as a whole. Student council is nothing more than an decaying arm of this weak body that claims to represent the students and yet so often misses the mark. I would argue that the decay of student council is not just a symptom of the student union’s disconnect with students, but one of its causes. Student council has the potential to be a powerful institution to force the sabbs to listen to student views, but in its current state it only serves to reinforce their disconnect from the reality of a normal student’s life. This disconnect only serves to allow the SU to campaign for things nobody even asked for instead of things students actually desire.
One of the most important jobs of student council is to scrutinise the work of the sabbatical officers throughout the year. As sabbs almost never run for re-election they would otherwise never be forced to account for their actions in office. Student council should however force sabbs to account for their time and work every 2 weeks and then ensure they are on the right track to follow through on their manifesto promises and not stray too far from student views on the issues they deal with. In reality, poor engagement from reps mean sabbs are left mostly unchecked to do as they please.
Student council’s other important function, deciding on SU policy, is another vital function that needs carrying out. The SU needs to reflect student views on important issues such as the UCU strikes, disciplinary policies and online teaching. Motions at SU council are practically guaranteed to pass these days however as reps are hidden behind screens and their votes not publicised, allowing them to simply vote apathetically and not have to care what their constituents think.
There is also an issue of culture within council itself when it comes to alternative views. This is mostly manifested in an apathy to many of the motions themselves. Since I have served on council I have never witnessed a motion be voted down, with most being passed unanimously. Debate is usually one-sided with only a few regular dissenters. Sometimes even the language of dissent is overpoliced as well, with minor word choices such as describing a motion as “insane” in one instance being decried as an ableist slight. While respect for other members must be maintained, it is important to create a culture where people can share opinions without worry of being punished for holding those opinions. A body such as student council can never be truly representative until this is the case.
For student council to change however, attitudes towards must change from both the reps and the student body as a whole. It can never be representative with three quarters of its members absent from every meeting. It can never be representative without reps engaging with their constituents, or without those constituents voicing their views on important issues to their representatives. I strongly encourage you the reader to write to your J/MCR representative or your schools rep about the issues that you care about, or run for the office yourself. Without proper engagement with student council it will only continue to enable an SU that is completely out of touch with the common student.