Online Comment Editor Cameron Scheijde argues that the SU is too distanced from real student experiences, but offers optimism at the future presented by the new officers.
The students’ union: that body of democratic representation and bastion of facilities for clubs and societies that you will probably have not been near. Tucked away in the corner of Clifton village, the SU is far distanced from the halls of Stoke Bishop or the flats of Cotham and Redland. It is therefore unsurprising that, for many Bristol students, the SU is an organisation separated from their own uni experience. You might have purchased the welcome wristbands during fresher’s or attended some of their alternative fresher’s events (which are excellent), but apart from this, how does the SU fit into your normal life?
‘For many Bristol students, the SU is an organisation separated from their own uni experience’
There is no need to go anywhere near it; and the policies they champion seem somewhat irrelevant to your day-to-day life. Were it not for the fact that I did a lot of drama last year, I would have had no reason to be involved in the SU whatsoever.
Yet, despite this, it is still one of the best tools of political engagement we have. Much like in any other professional vocation, we students have a union whose job is to represent our greater interests and ensure that the University, corporations or any other organisation that works with students don’t rip us off. Don’t like your course? Think your hall is a bit shabby? Need somewhere to set up your society? It’s the SU’s job to make sure these issues are dealt with.
The discrepancy between the power the SU has and the power that us students actually use is, doubtless, a problem that the Union is struggling to fix. In this article, I will lay out why I think students feel disillusioned with the SU, and what can be done in order to capture the hearts and interest of the main student body.
For starters, when I arrived in Bristol a year ago the Students’ Union had a reputation as a left-wing microcosm filled with people who would get offended if you looked at them and offended if you didn’t. An organisation where the officers are effectively mouthpieces for the NUS, and everything is clouded with some frightening degree of utopianism.
The building, despite being one of the largest custom-built student unions in the country, is a far-flung palisade met with ambivalence and ignorance
Somewhere that doesn’t affect your life and you probably couldn’t care less about, apart from when desperately swerving to avoid being accosted by rep hopefuls or leaflet campaigners. The building, despite being one of the largest custom-built student unions in the country, is a far-flung palisade met with ambivalence and ignorance. Whether these reputations are accurate is a matter for a separate article; here I would like to argue that the SU is a force for good in our lives and that, despite its many shortcomings, this year could be the year where the SU can finally make a noise in Bristol.
This year could be the year where the SU can finally make a noise in Bristol.
The SU full-time officers are meant to be our primary source of representation; but something struck me at SU election time last year: hardly anyone knew who they were. Despite the posters everywhere, no one really cared. There was another problem with the officers last year: while they were doubtless a hardworking, approachable and diverse group of people, they were not exactly representative of all political viewpoints.
This year, however, things are different
A quick search through the twitter feeds of any of last year’s officers would provide you with their leanings; staunch defenders of ex-NUS President and controversial figure Malia Bouattia, firm believers in the NUS, and very much on the far-left of the political spectrum.
— BristolZeroTolerance (@BristolZT) September 22, 2017
One of the mission statements of Bristol SU is “We are the collective voice of University of Bristol students”. It struck me that were I to have a campaign I believed passionately but did not fit the political leanings of the SU officer team, there would be little chance of receiving SU support.
This year, however, things are different. The SU officers elected seem to have a different outlook, with less focus on general politics and more focus on student issues. Stanford, Union Affairs officer this year, is, as far as I can tell, mostly a-political. Certainly, you cannot tell his political leaning from Facebook for Twitter. His issues are ones of ensuring societies have the space they need, providing better facilities and connecting students to the SU.
— Bristol PplsAssembly (@bristolpa) March 22, 2017
As a popular figure, Stanford is an example of how the SU can better connect with students. Politically, a more diverse range of opinions in the officer team, such as those of Lucky Dube, Student Living Officer, are very welcome. A mix of the political and a-political in the SU team is ideal and I think that this year there is a far greater chance of a broad and open dialogue on SU matters. After all, the SU does itself no favours when it ends up in the national press for censorship, no platforming and the likes.
As the students’ union is such a large and impressive landmark, there is a clear possibility for it to become the university rallying point. Away from political causes, the SU is scarcely used as much as it should. Just a quick survey of my flatmates was enough to tell me what I needed; some use the SU for societies but most don’t go in, or go in extremely rarely – perhaps to see a play, but not much else. Even fewer know of the SU’s job as a representative body, or feel at all represented by the SU.
‘Students need to know that the SU is where we can go with the multitude of legitimate complaints we have’
I feel that the official Students’ Union response to this article will be something along the lines of “we’re trying!”, which is completely understandable. However, I think there are two things that need to happen. Firstly, students need to know that the SU is where we can go with the multitude of legitimate complaints we have. Secondly, the SU needs to be broader and work to shake off the reputation that all student unions have; to paint itself as the place for every student; quiet, loud, drinkers, teetotallers, conservatives, socialists, liberals, and every identity under the sun.
Our students’ union is a fantastic organisation and with a broader outlook for students, focussing on issues that affect all of us: housing, tuition fees, grants, inclusion and so on, it can be the bastion of representative democracy it so strives to be.
Disclaimer: The views presented in Comment are those of our writers and do not reflect those of Epigram or the editorial team.
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