A New Student Union for a New University

Published

Credit: Sebastien Miellet

Liam King
Writer

Two themes have – once again – dominated this election cycle for the QMU and the SRC: finances and “engagement” respectively.  At the QMU proposals for financial CPR included: developing a “one-man-band” recording studio, investing in social media, fewer board perks, or more politicisation. At the SRC, the problem of “engagement” was to be “solved” with more posters, more “collaboration”, or more social media. However, like many of the election candidates themselves, the QMU’s finances and the SRC’s “engagement” have become facile fixtures of campaigning: devoid of vision, utterly unimaginative, and always lacking in analysis.

For the QMU, its financial predicament is a symptom, not a cause. The cause: student tastes and expectations have changed in the past decade, and the QMU has not changed with them. This has led to the vicious circle of falling income and events cuts, making the investments required to meet these new expectations increasingly difficult. This has been compounded by poor governance, no long-term strategy, and student leadership yearning for a mythical past.

Contrast this with the University’s approach to the campus redevelopment. The University began preparing for the campus development 15 years ago: every decision was considered with reference to the question “how will this prepare us for the Western Infirmary?” Over that time, the QMU has continued to burn money without a clear vision or consistent leadership. The QMU’s finances, like its people and its space, are not ends in themselves; they are enablers of mission and strategy, neither of which they have.

For the SRC, “engagement” is the issue which recurs with irritating regularity. Countless candidates have said things like: “I didn’t know the SRC did x until I ran for election”. When candidates talk about “engagement” they use it interchangeably with “awareness” and “communication”. In reality, engagement and communication are very different, though being better at one invariably helps the other. Such equivocation allows a number of ill-defined grievances and problems to be conflated, leading – at best – to issues only being superficially addressed.

In some senses, there isn’t a lack of engagement. The SRC’s workload is ever-growing and is stretching its services and sabbatical officers year-on-year to near breaking point. This is not news. It is detailed every year in a thorough Annual Report available for all to read, and presented to University Court. Why this has been under-appreciated on campus is that the very nature of the SRC’s work means its services will remain for most something to seek out only when in need. That ‘no one knows what the SRC’s services are’ is a natural result of the SRC’s complex role in comparison to the unions’ social activity. For students, “engagement” with the SRC’s work will remain uneven, and correlated strongly with individual circumstances.

However, there is, undoubtedly, a lack of engagement with the SRC’s politics. For The Glasgow Guardian, articles on contested elections and turnout is a hobbyhorse. But it is hard to ignore the point – it is a serious and recurring problem. Most students are totally unaware of the complex policy problems that the SRC deals with daily. How many students understand the potentially serious implications of the Teaching Excellence Framework or campus redevelopment, for example? Yet these policies will have a profound impact on the experience students have. There has yet to be an election where lecture recording is not a manifesto promise; despite it being approved several years ago. There is a disconnect between what the SRC has been doing, and what students understand the issue to be. The proposed solution is invariably more “awareness”, as if more posters is a panacea for all ills.

At some point we have to recognise that no matter how many times we change the packaging, the product isn’t working. Manifesto promises about engagement almost exclusively focus on the packaging. Why? Because candidates have bought into the status quo, most are ambivalent about change, and some are simply not serious on engagement at all. Increased political engagement from students is a threat to established power-bases, and would expose mediocrity threatening (re)election hopes. Instead of the difficult job of making students care about the issues, elections are fought across the small fraction of the electorate likely to vote, a large proportion of which are friends or Facebook acquaintances.

The result is posturing without any radical change. While candidates continue to misidentify the fundamental problems and offer vapid solutions to them little can change. There are some extremely serious issues, and the longer they go misidentified and miscommunicated, the more entrenched they become. It is the SRC’s own vicious circle.

It is unfair to say this is SRC specific; it has taken hold at all the student bodies. At the GUU there is contempt of democracy itself, replaced by a system of political patronage and coronation ruled over by the Old Boys. At the QMU, its clique prevented it from confronting its shortcomings and is why it now faces financial unsustainability. This campus-wide, self-perpetuating status quo has occurred at precisely the moment that a truly radical political vision of the future is needed.

The campus redevelopment is not really about the buildings. It is about what will happen inside them. The University is not spending £1bn to move academics from one office to an identical yet modern one just down the road. Management have been busy – since before most students at Glasgow started secondary school – building a New University, one transformed from the University of Glasgow you know today. In the process everything is up for grabs, there are no sacred cows, student bodies included.

The bad news is that the future is coming faster than the student bodies realise. As the campus redevelopment proceeds, all the student bodies could be marginalised into irrelevance; the space and services they offer easily replaced by modern University-run ones. But without students, this University would be just a very nice looking science park. Universities are their students and what separates Glasgow from some others is a thriving student culture. This cannot be taken for granted and lost as has happened elsewhere. The vision for the future needs to be one where students wield meaningful power and influence, and where student-led student life is central to Management’s plans.

The only way to realise this future is to take the initiative and join the New University willingly. The SRC and the QMU should be proud of their progressive values and history, and together they should build a new unified student union at the heart of a New University. In doing so they can finally address what has been haunting them both for years.

Pooling resources would vastly improve effectiveness and exert greater influence. Most students do not care for, or understand, the separate bureaucracies and governance systems. When most students cannot tell the difference between QMU Board and SRC Council it is hardly surprising that they see no reason to vote, let alone run for election. The energy spent on maintaining these systems means less spent on achieving the goals that really matter. Yet even those goals each seek to muscle in. There are numerous overlapping initiatives each competing with another, all generating huge amounts of wasteful duplication. In the end – with no real measure of success – it leaves students confused.

Every year, the student bodies go to the University and ask for more money to fund numerous iterations of the same thing. The case for investing in a unified student union is far more compelling than four separate expensive requests, each with different interests, and no coherence between them. Under the current budget system the University is faced with exactly that. Yet cue outrage when the University rejects what is so clearly poor business sense. This is the wilful waste of public money and we should be outraged.

The defence from the cliques is that having separate spaces allows them to cater to different strata of students. But this fetishisation of space and division is regressive, and how the cliques self-perpetuate. There is a focus only on the ‘members’ and encouraging students to conform – “join our club” – rather than creating an open, inclusive culture for new talent and ideas. The obsession with ‘tradition’ also conveniently ignores the entrenched misogyny that founded this byzantine system in the first place. If you were to establish a student union today, it is utterly inconceivable that you would design a system like this.

In same way that the QMU’s finances are not an end in themselves, the student bodies should are not an end in themselves. They ought to be facilitators of student life. Those that see the student bodies as “ends” are the clique. The only way to buy entry to this elite is to buy into this system. Thus dissent is quashed: in a popularity contest proposing something unpopular is the road to the gallows. Therefore change is unlikely to come from within: there is simply too much for the clique to lose.

The vast majority of students recognise this for what it is, normally by the end of Freshers’ Week, and then disassociate themselves completely. Creating a new, simplified, organisation would be an opportunity to wipe away this political elite and design a system from scratch for the overwhelming majority of students.

There is a new world coming and we are hopelessly unprepared for it. If those elected are serious about financial sustainability and about “engagement”, then they need to face up to reality and start making some very difficult decisions. They can start by collectively asking: what do we really want? Do we want things to change things just a little bit? Or, do we want a system where students have meaningful power and influence over Management? Because if they truly want the latter then insular self interested cliques will have to give up their power and influence, and channel it into a new strong and unified student union.