Thursday, 20 December 2007

The factionalised nature of the student movement

Student unions have been around for a long time and provide students with a number of different services. The University of St. Andrews Student Association, started in 1864, is the oldest in Britain. Since that time the student movement has seen a number of changes, one of the most notable being in 1994, when the Education Act was implemented. This defined the basic purposes of a union, the composition of membership and what it required to have in place.

According to the Act, this is the meaning of a student union:
"(a) an association of the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies whose principal purposes include promoting the general interests of its members as students; or

(b) a representative body (whether an association or not) whose principal purposes include representing the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies in academic, disciplinary or other matters relating to the government of the establishment."
So, student unions must represent their members in the areas of (at least) academic issues and welfare. This isn't just on campus - they also represent their members at conferences such as the NUS Annual Conference (which will become the Annual Congress because of the recent governance review). Therefore part of or all of the executive of a union must not represent the agenda of anyone else, such as a national political faction.

Why then, do I see things such as the presence of factions like Student RESPECT, Labour Students and Education Not for Sale at e.g. conferences? It's an interesting question.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having socities at student unions that relate to political parties and discuss e.g. national and regional issues from their perspective. However, if a student union executive is dominated by members of a faction and attempt to implement policies which always echo the views of said faction, it's possible that they are no longer representing the views of that university's student populus. This means they are contradicting the definition stated in the Education Act.

How can you stop factions from having this sort of influence though? It is certainly difficult. If it's obvious that the manifesto of a potential union president is faction-centric and not student-focused, it's up to the voter to decided whether that candidate is unsuitable. Due to the nature of student apathy though, it is more likely that factions get a foothold as their members will be the active few who are certainties to vote.

The only way is to get the apathetic majority interested in student politics, but without being biased. That balanced viewpoint will then lead to all unions being run by people who comply with the Education Act definition. It will also lead to a National Union of Students who is always student-focused.

Don't assume that I think the whole student movement is factionalised though. From my time in the student movement I have known many examples of executives and individual executive members who are active, but present balanced viewpoints. These are the 'independents'.

These people must not be confused with the 'Organised Independents (more commonly known as the OIs)' who ironically have the word independent in their name, but act as a group. Stephen Brown, the current National Secretary of the National Union of Students once made this comment about OIs on an entry in my now-discontinued education blog (it was difficult to generate enough education content worthy of a separate blog):
"We work together on common issues but do not take a line from an outside organiser."
Hmmm. They may not be influenced by a third-party, but they do come together on various issue and agree a way to approach them. That means they are a faction. Mr. Brown has managed to contradict himself.

I applaud any union who actively tries to eradicate student apathy. It might be a long and difficult task, but if nothing if done it's certain that the apathetic masses will grow.

The 'Vote 2008' campaign that Hull University Union is currently implementing is a great idea. Having something there from the beginning to the end of the academic year means that minor elections get more prominence and there will potentially be interest growing throughout the year which results in an increased voter turnout for the major union executive elections.

Maybe I seem old-fashioned, but I believe that student union executives should comply with legislation and represent the views of it's members and work on issues that are relevant to them, instead of executives being proxies for national political factions.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Students, Politics, Student Unions


Thief of Time said...

National parties are what politicians call 'sectional interests'. They unite groups of people with a specific set of goals in mind around a set of principles which they share.

These groups represent the voters of this nation... no matter which way you look at it about 28-35 million people align themselves with a political party during election times. Student politics is no different. Just because people tag themselves with a label doesn't mean they're suddenly part of some organic super-mind that thinks the same way. I know that I disagree with a lot of Labour Students policy, for example.

However the converse is also true- not labelling yourself doesn't take away from the fact that your politics are capable of being labelled. The attitude you take towards key issues surrounding government policy, student issues and social issues (if consistent-which, if you want to be taken seriously, they should be) define your politics.

It is when people refuse to take a political stance then problems arise in students unions. When people say to students 'i don't care about politics, let's lower bar prices and just have a good time'. Because the real world isn't like that, and if you raise a generation of people who don't think about the big issues, don't remain sympathetic to politicians and political parties-

well then you end up with a generation of bitter, apathetic and cynical voters, looking towards extremist parties and short-term results. Looking for the next tax break.

Look up populism. Because when you start appealing to the 'apathetic masses' with the kinds of things that get them going... well that's what history shows you get. Iran have a populist leader, let's not learn from them, now.