Student unions: is there any point?


Forget the myth makers, student unions matter

By George Walker

For a long time now, it has been popular to attack student politics. With the much-maligned National Union of Students (NUS) and student unions often failing to cultivate much engagement from student bodies, campus politics has become an easy target for populists across the political spectrum. These sentiments have been embodied recently in NUS disaffiliation across the country, and presidential and election campaigns here in Durham.

Yet whilst these campaigns undoubtedly posit valid criticisms of student politics, such initiatives more often engage with a caricature of the movement, not the positive and vibrant communities that hugely benefit both activists and the wider student population.

Detractors of campus politics often present a weak straw-man argument. They paint a picture of a small band of self-righteous career politicians, setting out to right the world’s wrongs at humble JCR meetings. They fail to recognise the diverse range of forms that student politics can take.

Student politics can involve campaigning on specific issues that affect students on campus, such as spiralling rents or a lack of study space. Equally, it can mean involvement in the student wing of a political party, involvement in a campus liberation campaign, shaping the direction of your Students’ Union, or simply promoting debate and political education amongst fellow students. A huge proportion of students are engaged in one or more of these forms of student politics, and all have their virtues.

A major criticism levelled at student politics is that it cannot enact change – and yet this has repeatedly been proven to be a myth. In the past, NUS campaigns helped win students an exemption from council tax and the creation of discounted railcards. They also became the first national organisation to pass policy in favour of gay rights in 1973. Here in Durham, we have also seen the difference an increasingly vibrant activist community can make, with tireless campaigns helping to reduce the rate of college rent hikes and securing the creation of Durham’s Sexual Violence Taskforce.

These campaigns are not ‘egotrips’ for those involved; they have in fact made a real difference to students in Durham and across the UK. We should celebrate the positive impact student politics can have on our campuses, and praise those with the bravery and tenacity to drive that change. To those who claim students cannot make a difference: the change you can make is always bigger than you think.

As well as creating real change, student politics also educates and engages young people, countering that label of ‘apathy’ to which they are often assigned. Party politics can often be dour: dominated by middle-aged white men who have little in common with the average student.

In this regard, student politics can be an excellent antidote. During the recent general election, Durham University Labour Club provided opportunities for many Durham students to campaign for the party and talk to voters in their local community. Even if few students attend Labour Party Branch meetings, through student politics – an environment geared towards young people – they can become more civically active and educated citizens as a result, which helps bust the myth that young people simply do not care. In Durham specifically, a university whose student body has a reputation for being pale, stale and generally apathetic, student politics can dispel this perception by showing the capacity of Durham students to push for change in an often colourful, creative and exciting fashion.

Student politics certainly has its problems, and as students we should hold student leaders to account and criticise them when we feel they are failing to represent our interests. But calling for more apolitical campuses is not a solution. Instead, more students should be involved in more politically active students’ unions – which should in turn campaign unapologetically to uphold the interests of their members on the range of issues they face. Doing so would benefit all students and shape our campuses for the better – so let’s stop taking the easy option of castigating and go out and engage people instead.


Ignore Student Union politics and you might discover yourself

By Sam Betley

Arriving in Durham for the first time, you are probably sick of being told that your time at university will be the best of your life. Yet as an undergraduate, you have an unparalleled opportunity to discover your fundamental beliefs about the basis of a prosperous society.

At university, there are two main ways of getting involved in politics: the Student Unions (of Durham, and at national level), and the various associations and clubs affiliated to Britain’s major political parties. The former route merely seems to narrow the minds of participants. In contrast, the diversity of student political groups represented at the Freshers’ Fair never ceases to impress.

It is true that some have tried to break the mould and introduce new ideas to the National Union of Students (NUS). Arguably the best known of these outliers is Tom Harwood, a Durham finalist whose recent campaign for the NUS presidency went viral. Harwood was ultimately unsuccessful – at least in terms of vote share. Nevertheless, he identified some key problems that are currently impossible to overcome because of the ideological homogeneity of the NUS.

Consistently low turnout at university elections sends an unrepresentative body of delegates to the national conference, which tends disproportionately to the left, weakening the opportunity for debate. Even university student unions are afflicted with this bias. More importantly, though, a taste for grandstanding has become endemic in NUS culture: instead of focusing on crucial issues for students such as exorbitant rent and falling quality of teaching (based on the most recent National Student Survey results), they choose to debate motions on subjects like global geopolitics and the monarchy.

Every fresher with an interest in politics should heed the lessons from Harwood’s experience: ignore the NUS circus, and debate political issues in the many political groups that exist within Durham University.

Student politics societies offer so much more that the NUS and DSU. As a fresher, I did not have the confidence to even join a political group. Yet now, as a finalist, I find myself on the Exec of the Durham University Conservative Association (DUCA), with a growing network of contacts amongst the extensive list of names who travelled to address us over the course of last year. The group enables you to befriend passionate people who may challenge our beliefs about the world. It is this principle of intellectual debate that sets such groups apart from the political activities of the NUS: an organisation perennially compromised by the rigidity of its delegates’ views.

The Durham University Labour Club (DULC) espouses similar principles to DUCA regarding diversity of opinion, reflecting changes in the national party. An active member of DULC attributed this approach to the friendly and tolerant attitude of its members, and credited campaigning activities with helping to deal with long-term anxiety. It appears membership of a political group at university can even contribute to good mental health. It is also beneficial for your career prospects, with numerous opportunities to develop skills such as public speaking and leadership. There really are no downsides to getting involved.

Weighing up the pros and cons of divergent pathways into student politics, there is no real comparison. The groups with direct affiliations to national parties can make a difference. Whatever your views are, these groups give you the freedom to discover your own political niche.

Photograph: Tom Page via Flickr and Creative Commmons

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