A recent comment piece in this Varsity heaped criticism on the Student Union (SU), centring on the contention that SU Council is unfit for purpose. I believe I’m in a suitable position to challenge these claims.
A recent comment piece in Varsity heaped criticism on the Students' Union (SU), centring on the contention that SU Council is unfit for purpose.
The Council, designed to be the democratic accountability and policy-setting arm of the SU, is allegedly disconnected from student opinion by the fact that some of the members on it are not nominated by JCR/MCRs.
In particular, the article highlights the presence of ‘representatives of the SU’s campaigns, various other members representing student groups and academic ‘Schools’, and the sabbs themselves’ who sit on the Council. These members apparently act as a sea anchor, insulating the body against even a ‘huge shift in student opinion’. An in-built ‘coalition of the radical and the bored’ is said to prevent change desired by students.
This is a compelling narrative for those frustrated by the SU, but a false one.
I believe I’m in a suitable position to challenge these claims. I was elected as the Chair of SU Council earlier this year, having never been involved with SU governance and politics.
The Council is composed of 97 members:
- 62 are representatives from JCR/MCRs (2 delegated by JCR/MCRs at each of the 31 colleges)
- 8 are Sabbatical Officers (directly elected by the student body each Lent)
- 4 are Portfolio Officers (directly elected by the students for specific ‘portfolios’, such as representing Part Time Students)
- 11 are representatives of the SU’s student-run campaigns
- 12 are school-level Student Academic Representatives (directly elected by students in each academic ‘school’ of the University)
Let us imagine the polar opposition implied by the article, between the JCR/MCR Reps and all those members directly involved in the SU, with the independent Student Academic Representatives set to one side.
An in-built ‘outright majority’ impervious to fluctuating student opinion, rendering the Council immune to a ‘huge swing in voting’? It doesn’t appear that way.
The fundamental problem, which the article identifies, is a lack of engagement with the body itself.
Consider the percentage turnout of council members separated by member type over the 2021-2022 academic year (effectively prior to my taking office):
Only twice did turnout amongst the JCR/MCR Reps exceed 25%.
But let us refine our approach further by again comparing the JCR/MCR Reps and all members directly involved in the SU (that is, the Sabbatical Officers, Portfolio Officers, and Campaign Reps). Consider a comparison of their turnouts:
Across eight voting meetings, the mean turnout rate of the 23 members directly involved in the SU was 40%. Amongst JCR/MCR Reps, it was just 23%.
In the Council, then, we can observe the following two facts:
- JCR/MCR Reps outnumber members directly involved in the SU by almost 3 to 1
- JCR/MCR Reps usually (taking the past year as indicative) turn out to meetings at a much lower rate than their counterparts directly involved in the SU.
Many students perceive shortcomings in the SU, but the Council can be a tool for them to make substantive changes. JCR/MCR Representatives do hold the power: most of them simply don’t bother coming to meetings.
So, if the question is “Who in their right minds would join the Student Union?”, I propose a different answer. The SU is not institutionally broken: if you want change, the first step is turning up.
Chair of SU Council