As our University expands, it is time we said goodbye to our student unions

Published

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Barry Collinge
Writer

A choice of unions is as natural to our university life as Potter-esque architecture, a thigh-burning climb to the library and at least one regret involving Viper. But could our student organisations be better? Two articles in a recent issue of the Glasgow Guardian cast light on trouble facing them – their income has been slashed when student numbers (and fees) are bulging, and their failure to have any kind of gender balance in the acts for Freshers’ Week.

Our unions (the QMU and GUU, along with the SRC) strive to improve campus life. The combination of events and services offered is overwhelming, and their hard work should be recognised and appreciated. However, we shouldn’t turn away from their problems and a chance to talk about what changes would be best for them and us. Are their arrangements holding us back from something better? Could we, and future generations of students, benefit from combining the strengths of the SRC, QMU and GUU into a single union?

We undeniably have a colossal student representative body: there are more than 70 posts across three organisations. Most of these are filled during the annual spring elections that are a shambles of democracy—four elections (including GUSA’s) happen simultaneously. Popularity contests and Haribo overdoses aside, the chaos of vague position titles, manifestos and hustings leave candidates barely scrutinised, some running completely unopposed for influential positions. There is a wealth of opportunity to get involved but the democracy that our campus should see every year, the process which has some influence on our experience, is diluted at every turn.

One union, a completely new organisation comprised of all three existing bodies, with a clear structure would give us the chance to decide and define our experience together. A single distinct election would be a time to ask and answer difficult questions; to declare that this is who we are; to form a unified team that not only represents all of us, but is invested in—and answers to—the entire student population.

The money all three groups receive from the University is ultimately for us to improve our experience, but it is currently spread thinly across three small budgets. Bringing these small incomes together would help us better manage and decide where it should be spent, while offering the opportunity to do more, and the strength to negotiate better deals with suppliers. It would also highlight just how much the University is giving directly back to us, or how little. One union wouldn’t just have the strength to better manage our funds, but effectively protest against any cut in its block grant when the University’s surplus appears to be growing. An unjustified reduction of £10,000 is little more than a fraction to the university, but could be devastating to our campus life. We need a unified independent body that can challenge university decisions, demand more direct investment in student life, and one that we can unite behind.

Many would argue that more student associations offer greater variety, with more places to eat, drink, play pool and host events. The assortment of interests and cultures on campus are, however, already covered by the ever-growing carnival of societies, while the unions are in direct opposition to each other. Although some would say competition is healthy, it doesn’t contribute to our experience. Any student body should be there for one thing: the students, not vying to declare a bigger profit, Freshers’ Week or club night. Any disapproval of one union inevitably leads to others pointing out two things: the good that union does, and what’s rotten in the state of the other one.

Each union has its own character and attitude, borne from its members, but if you don’t like it the immediate response shouldn’t be to suggest that you have no stake in the union – you can go elsewhere and let it carry on without any change. It currently takes something that grabs shameful headlines or threatens closure to stir any kind of adjustment, and even then it isn’t to directly answer student criticism, but merely to quell the flames. One union would be responsible for all our interests, to listen and make real transformations where we needed them—as well as being a place where we were all invested, and all contributing towards.

Does the novelty of three separate student bodies work for us as best it can, or is it a trinket to show off with, a convention so entrenched here that it is above scrutiny? There is no reason we cannot continue our traditions—a distinguished debating society; a hive of progressive culture; open mics and Daft Fridays—while realising the possibilities that best represent all of us in one unified student union. Our history should be appreciated for giving us what we have today, but it must not dictate our possibilities for tomorrow. As the University is about to begin a new era of exceptional expansion, it is our right to be at the heart of change. We should not merely accept the problems while resting on our successes, we should be evolving and building upon them.