Turnout for student elections is notoriously low. Is there a better way?
To the outside world, student politics have long been something of a punchline. Whether in parody on shows like Fresh Meat, or (more recently) as part of a greater part of “snowflake” campus culture to be denigrated by Daily Mail journalists and political commentators. Former Rector candidate Milo Yiannopoulos characterised students as coming to university to “create atrociously-designed and poorly-spelled placards complaining about nothing very much” in a profile-interview during his campaign.
Given this context, it might be assumed that student elections would be hotly-contested and placard-heavy, but this is not the case. Data released by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2015 gave an average election turnout for its constituent unions as 18%. The University of Glasgow is not known historically for its abundant electoral enthusiasm; the figure for voter turnout in the 2012 SRC elections was only 15%. In contrast, St. Andrews recorded a historic 52% turnout in elections for its Student Association in the same year. While official turnout figures for this year have not been published (at time of writing) by any of the four student bodies affiliated with the University, it does not seem as though the situation has improved a great deal in the last five years. Current SRC president Kate Powell was elected unopposed to the position with 1432 votes – just over 5% of the student body. Likewise, this year’s rectorial election was postponed as not a single candidate had been nominated during the initial window. Proceedings only continued following the creation of an online petition, and an emergency vote held by the SRC in response to re-open nominations for a two-week period in March. Even after the controversial nominations of Milo Yiannopoulos and Brace Belden and the accompanying national media coverage, voter turnout on polling day was only 31%.
Interestingly, this lack of political engagement in students and young people fits the other side of a publicly-held stereotype about young people, that we are politically apathetic on a national scale, and fail to vote to our own detriment. It was this sentiment that led to a plethora of brow-furrowing think-pieces in the run up to June’s general election with titles like “How do you solve Britain’s youth voting crisis?” and “What will get Britain’s youth voting?”. However, what previously had been considered a truism of British politics proved to be fodder for the post-election analysis on the resurgence of the Labour Party. An Ipsos MORI estimate placed turnout among 18-24 year olds on voting day at 64%, the highest since 1994, and up by 20% from their estimate for the previous election in 2015.
Of course, increased political engagement on a national platform by voters of a student age does not translate into a more vibrant political life on campus. But it begs the question: if students and young people can challenge the stereotype of apathy on a national scale – despite the fact that this very apathy has made their concerns a low priority for political parties – then why does the level of engagement in campus politics, where students could make a tangible difference to their own lives, remain as stagnant as before? Glasgow’s student bodies have a vaunted history of producing recent Scottish political titans, with both Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy having sat as President of the GUU, as well as the (first) First Minister Donald Dewar who was also honorary secretary of the SRC. Yet, the current Presidents of the SRC and the GUU were both elected uncontested, in votes that failed to exceed recent expectations. Is it a mistake to think that students are naturally inclined to participate in student politics? Or is our complacency something that can be attributed at least in part to student institutions themselves?
Addressing the sense of apathy that he personally feels towards student politics, third year student Patrick told me “perhaps it’s because of my own bias, but I don’t know much about the different political bodies in the University and their function in the University system.” Putting it bluntly, fellow third year student Ed said of the political bodies at Glasgow that “they do such a shite job of publicising what they do to render it sort of useless.” The blame for this lack of awareness can’t be laid wholly on the student bodies, but the correlation between poor publicity and low student engagement is one that has been noted in the past. The NUS data from 2015 showed that average election turnout was highest in the category of universities that spent the most promoting their elections – although these did also happen to be the universities with the most money TO spend (looking at you, St. Andrews).
Many of the students I asked identified a major reason for student apathy as being the complacency of the student bodies themselves. One student who asked to remain anonymous said that “the SRC is notorious for doing the absolute bare minimum and offering absolutely nothing other than what’s already become expected.” Politics student Henry told me that “we don’t really care about student politics because it’s literally never about the issues. They don’t really do anything, so we don’t really care.” While it might be unfair to accuse the SRC of doing the bare minimum, it has been criticised in the past for its complacency. An SRC campaign launched this September to increase the use of lecture recording facilities in the University came after an article and petition launched by The Glasgow Guardian’s own Georgina Hayes last year, and as mentioned above, the reopening of this year’s rectorial nominations also came only after the creation of an online petition. The GUU also famously introduced an Equality and Diversity policy in 2013, but only in the wake of the “debategate” scandal in which two visiting female debaters complained about sexist heckling during the GUU Ancients debating competition. The student bodies are supposed to act in the interests of their constituents; do knee jerk responses to public outcry or acting out of absolute necessity really satisfy this responsibility?
If the student bodies don’t create engagement based on their policies, how do they stimulate any turnout at all? A committee member of one of the student bodies (who wished to remain anonymous) gave me an answer: “I think many of us see student elections as a popularity contest – it’s definitely less about the manifestos and policies as it is about the amount of friends you have who will ultimately vote for you. It seems that unless someone you know is running, you won’t necessarily hear about or take part in the elections, which exacerbates the apathy.” The sentiment that student elections are more of a social affair could perhaps be due to the influence of social media in campaigning – during election week last year, personalised snapchat filters and Facebook pages for individual candidates were in abundance, forms of campaigning which depend at least partially on popularity or social capital (how many friends you can badger into sharing your event or campaign page). If a candidate can run a winning campaign without having to build it on the issues and the policies that affect students, then it seems perfectly valid to ask why they would bother. Likewise, if a student’s interaction with campus politics is limited to a few weeks of social media campaigning and signs on campus each semester, it understandable that taking part could seem more like a chore than some democratic privilege.
The problem with this model is that it is not in the interests of candidates themselves to challenge it, a factor which allows for a well-trodden path up the hierarchy of Glasgow’s student bodies. The current Presidents of the GUU, GUSA and the SRC were all elected to their positions from other jobs within their respective bodies. The “popularity contest” aspect of these campaigns is one of the possible reasons why so many positions within the student bodies are uncontested, as the costs of a failed campaign could be social as well as political. Both GUU President Aslak Ringhus and SRC President Kate Powell were elected without an opponent, and in Ringhus’ case his original opponent Blair Lockwood actually dropped out late in the race. Around 46% of all currently elected positions in the SRC were returned uncontested.
A lack of candidates is a symptom of the apathy already present in student politics, but lack of competition is a major problem that student bodies must tackle if they want to increase turnout – the NUS figures showed that those universities with the highest turnouts in their elections averaged 30 competing candidates. Moreover, while candidates currently have little to lose the way things are at the moment, they have a great deal to gain – a line on their CV, their name on a plaque, or, in the case of the SRC President, a paid year away from study but still at university. It’s easy to see how the student bodies could struggle to stimulate external engagement in elections with essentially predetermined outcomes. With elections on the horizon and not much change since last year, Ed’s view that the “GUU and QMU elections don’t really even strike [him] as ‘politics’, anyway” may be the dominant attitude for some time yet.