In the wake of October’s Student Representative elections, the EU Students’ Officer gives her opinion on the effectiveness of Union politics.
Nearly two hundred years ago, UCL was founded on the principles of meritocracy, inclusiveness, and secularism. The idea that every deserving student should have access to higher education regardless of social background was revolutionary at the time, and UCL’s spiritual founder Jeremy Bentham strongly believed in inclusion as a mean of progress for society. While Oxford and Cambridge excluded students along the lines of religion and sex, UCL provided opportunities for deserving students who did not fit the mould. The intersection of cultures, experiences, and views is the DNA of UCL. It is what makes our university strong and unique.
However, behind its apparent diversity, UCL is in many ways a clear representation of what must be addressed within today’s society: a superficial promotion of inclusiveness that disguises a lack of engagement. Our current Students’ Union politics are seen by many as made by and for specific students’ groups. We are, of course, products of our experiences, and inter-society lobbying is going strong at UCL; groups such as the Islamic Society, one of the most pro-active on campus, is known for having its members elected to some of the highest positions of the Student Union every year.
The use of iPads as a means of securing quick votes on campus is another critical issue. In short, candidates without the backing of the most active societies have practically no chance of being successful at the polls, often regardless of their engagement or ideas. This is a democratic flaw that should be addressed; people of all perspectives should be able to express their ideas without fearing personal backlash or lobbies’ influence.
Across the political spectrum, there is hypocrisy; conversation about increasing inclusivity is important and needed, but paradoxically it has left many students feeling unconsidered. Ayo Olatunji’s case has embodied this ongoing frustration; the former UCL BME officer expressed hostile views towards the Jewish community he was supposed to represent as part of his role, and later during his (short) time at the National Union of Students.
Representation is achieved by those in positions of authority standing up and defending the people they have been elected to represent. The aforementioned Twitter case is analogous to a disturbing trend amongst past Sabbatical Officers to give their own personal politics, and those of their affiliated groups, priority over the welfare of a minority community that they are paid to represent. Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that many have been left cynical about the relevance and effectiveness of the Union.
The lack of candidates for most university positions and the apparent disinterest for representation is telling, and it is worrying to see that a good number of positions at this year’s Representative elections have remained vacant. Students feeling that they can’t express themselves is a problem. Disengagement is not always a sign of carelessness, but rather one of helplessness caused by a flawed system. In other words, it is not the lack of political engagement from students that is to blame (posts on UCLove show the eagerness of students to debate), but a lack of space for inclusive conversation.
So what can the Union do to open its politics to all students? The ethical line between effective marketing and disrespecting the democratic process is an easy one to cross. Should ‘blind’ elections be organised with manifesto-only-campaigns and no endorsement from societies? No names, no pictures? Or maybe regulations invalidating elections if votes come from one pressure group only?
The founding purpose of UCL is to provide deserving people from different backgrounds with opportunities to build a more progressive society. The fault of today’s politics, and arguably of our Union, is that it has become more a question of a fight for power rather than of progress. Most of the University sees the Union as useless at best, or are not aware of its workings. Students politics has become increasingly emotional, one-sided, and cyclical in its debate – whereas university education encourages open-mindedness and challenges upheld truths. There is nothing wrong with influential groups and convictions, but as the UCL founders would contend, we must build a more progressive world together. The task of political institutions is to serve the people, and it is up to us to decide on the kind of representation we want: a clash of egos, or compromises that could lead to unity. Balance is not easy to achieve, but it is necessary. We should all strive to provide each and every student with a voice and not settle for less.
This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine.