Recently, current St Cuthbert’s Society JCR President, Megan Croll, was elected Durham SU President-Elect, beating rival Harry Cross with 1,874 votes to 1,709. Other winners included Sabrina Seel as Postgraduate Academic Officer, Charlie Walker as Opportunities Officer, and Rosa Tallack as Welfare and Liberation Officer. However, the real question is not whether these winning candidates were worthy of support, but rather, where was this support?
The low voter turn-out in our recent SU elections was somewhat shameful. Out of a student population of roughly 17,000 individuals, we could only muster an approximate 24.7 percent voter turn-out. In this context, how easy does Croll’s win really sit, and why are we so apathetic to the election process? It surely takes only a few short minutes to clink on a link to a website.
Some might say this is a victory building on last year, when only 3,586 bothered to vote, marking a shocking 18.3 per cent election turn-out. The trend of voter stagnation has been a long-term issue; Palatinate lamented the low voter statistic of 25% as far back as the 2011 elections. In some ways, this feels like a broken record. Considering the President is afforded an impressive £18,000 approximate salary, why aren’t we a more enfranchised student body? Many commented that they were not aware of the elections taking place, or that campaigns were not well publicised. Many stated that they simply did not care enough about the candidates to bother to vote.
However, the likely cause of vote-dodging is summed up by those very people who campaigned to be this year’s President. In an exclusive interview with Palatinate, Croll admitted that “the SU doesn’t make that much of an impact at the moment,” Cross commented that “the Students’ Union could do more to engage students with the issues that matter to them,” whilst Nadkarni stated his belief that “the current condition of the Durham Students’ Union is not good.” Surely it is clear by now that our student population is simply disillusioned with the DSU?
This is reflected in the lack of candidates as well as voters. Last year there was heated contest for the role of Academic Affairs Officer, whilst this year the new Undergraduate Academic Officer role had no candidates at the opening of voting. Such apathy does not just appear from nowhere; it takes years of mistrust and resentment to fester. The University has made a series of wrong moves for a clear decade now, most notably by disregarding the growing concern of cost-of-living for students, now reaching crisis point. In the eyes of students, the DSU has clearly failed to cope with moderating this growing problem.
Is it because we are a collegiate university? The role of JCRs sees the position of the SU diminished in the eyes of the student body; why have two institutions when you already have one? However, this argument also falls flat; voter turn-out for JCR non-presidential exec positions has been decidedly unimpressive in recent years.
On the flip side, statistics for President elections are on the rise. For example, in the 2016 JCR elections at Aidan’s, the winning JCR President received 244 votes. In some ways, this undoubtedly blocks the utility of the union, with college JCRs overruling the SU regularly. How is this conducive to achieving anything effectively?
I realise people are disillusioned with the Students’ Union because they believe it does not make the effort to vocalise student concerns. But this is a myth; we don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. It is the job of the President and elected SU officers to ensure a better relationship is established with the University and it is the job of the five paid Student Officers to stand up for you.
So, if you want to be represented adequately it is your duty to choose the right candidates; those that will not be solely ‘behind the scenes’ figures, those that truly care about the role. If you did not vote, do you really have a right to complain about the state of the SU? We need more of our student body to engage with these elections. Only then can we really ensure concrete, not lacklustre change.
Photograph: Durham Students’ Union