Doug Jack’s views piece about the socially insular nature of the QMU makes a worthwhile point about the accessibility of any student union – including the GUU. However, I’d argue that’s to be expected from any group of people who spend the majority of their time together. It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly not specific to any one of the University of Glasgow’s student bodies, nor a university setting more generally. There should be attempts to tackle it but, to at least some extent, it’s part of social reality.
Instead, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room here in terms of insularity: the SRC. Certainly, it suffers from the same problem of social insularity as both of the student unions. As I’ve said before, that’s to be expected. However, it also suffers from a far more pressing issue: a lack of transparency. In short, unless you know someone on Council, you will know extremely little about anything that its members are doing. All you have to go by are sparse updates on social media on their achievements, along with the minutes of Council meetings – which only contribute slightly to the visibility of the executive officers’ activities. This is something that the SRC can, and should, address.
Of course, lack of transparency isn’t a problem unique to the SRC. We can see a similar state of affairs in the case of both student unions. However, the remit of the SRC versus that of the student unions is vastly different – with the SRC forming the essential bridge in communications between students and staff at the university. The actions of its Council members, in their dealings with the university and its staff, have a direct impact on all students. Taking steps towards a more transparent SRC is of utmost importance to the student population as a whole – not solely to those who frequent either union.
This lack of transparency directly impacts on the SRC’s electoral process in a number of ways. It chiefly manifests itself through an asymmetrical information gap; in which experienced Council members hold far superior understandings of the current status of policy negotiations with the university. As a whole, students rarely hear of SRC activities unless there has been some significant achievement. Or a dinner. You see plenty of photos of dinners.
This makes it difficult for first-time candidates to challenge those with previous SRC experience – particularly those seeking re-election to their current role. For those who haven’t held a position on the Council, it’s extremely difficult to build a comprehensive, targeted manifesto. We see it time and time again, every year: the vague promises of fresh-faced rival candidates against the – typically – more specific, focused, policies of those seeking re-election. With such a problematic gap in the information available to candidates, dependent on their experience with the SRC, those challenging the re-election of any prior Council members face an uphill battle.
More worryingly, this lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess the re-election claims of those standing. Of course, knowing the extent to which candidates fulfilled – or worked towards the fulfilment of – their prior manifesto promises is essential in order to make an informed choice. It’s easy enough for re-election candidates to claim they made progress towards their previous aims, however there’s no way to check the extent to which such claims are grounded in reality without going incredibly out of one’s way. There seems to be an unspoken, but generally accepted, rule in which no one can question the competence of candidates in their previous positions. Again, unless you know someone on Council, you will know nothing about how effective various Council members are.
Of course, the non-transparent nature of the SRC isn’t just apparent come election-time. It raises problems in regards to the way in which the student body can interact with it, and those who are said to represent them. A lack of information available about the SRC’s ongoing campaigns – big and small – means that students cannot get involved. It should be stated – because it sometimes seems to be forgotten – that it isn’t solely those who hold positions on a student body or student society that have ideas for change, events or whatever else. Students at the University of Glasgow are extremely active, and should be kept in-the-loop as to ongoing disputes and negotiations with the university. The recent success of the Divestment from Fossil Fuels campaign group attests to the power of student activists to affect change.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like a problem that will be addressed any time soon, going by the manifestos of this year’s executive candidates. There’s been some manifesto chat – chiefly by Presidential candidate Liam King – about taking steps to make senior university management more accountable via increased transparency. However, there have been zero concrete commitments made in terms of increasing the transparency of the SRC itself. Sure, there have been the vague commitments of ‘increasing communication’ with students, but this really doesn’t cut to the bone of the issue at hand.
Of even more concern, it’s questionable whether Council members would actually support a move towards greater SRC transparency. Currently, the only way in which they appear to be held accountable in any manner is via reports on their activities in between Council meetings. However, access to these reports isn’t automatically open to the students they are meant to represent, as they’re not published online for perusal. Whether or not Council members routinely write up these reports is also unclear.
Additionally, through the grapevine, there have been stories of proposals to publish these reports online, which were said to have been dismissed by Council members. If true, this should be of great interest to anyone who believes their representatives should be accountable for their action, or lack thereof. More importantly, this raises concern as to why such accountability is being avoided. Surely the first step towards a more transparent SRC – one in which Council members can actually be held accountable to some extent – is the introduction of a requirement to routinely, and openly, submit reports of their activities online.
The fact that the activities of Council members have remained elusive to the majority of students for so long is unacceptable. At present, student involvement and engagement is limited to election-time, where representatives depend on their vote. Otherwise, the SRC remains a sort of castle on a hill, where the inner workings are unclear to anyone outside of it.