Several things have happened in my students' union at Swansea University within the last few weeks, leading up to the Full Time Officer Elections, which are starting this week (24th March). It's been an interesting past few weeks, with student participation, awareness and involvement in the students' union at an all time high. I find that when what can be perceived as 'scandalous' situations arise in the union, or any students' union for that matter, the students find themselves wanting to be more involved and included, wanting to know what is going on in their union. It makes a surprisingly lovely change, if you ask me. However, that doesn't excuse what has been alleged to have happened.
Events have constantly been unfolding in the last few weeks, and they come in three fold.
Firstly, our students' union President, Zahid Raja is currently under investigation, following allegations that he has been misusing union funds. He was implicated in an expense scandal last week alongside one of the presidential candidates, who has since dropped out of the running, following the students' union receiving several complaints that said candidate had made previously inappropriate remarks on their twitter account.
Mr Raja submitted a claim of reimbursement for a trip to the Universities UK Reception, held by The Lord Mayor of London in London on 4 March; a total claim of £416 for a 90 minute meeting in London. Several students at Swansea have questioned whether he was justified to spend £189 for three single rooms for a London hotel for himself, the current International Officer and the aforementioned presidential candidate, when the meeting ended at 7pm, meaning that the three could have arrived back in Swansea before midnight on the same evening.
A further £227 was spent on train fare.
The union confirmed that the expenses to attend the conference have been reimbursed at a grand total of £513 (before meal provision and other claims) for two people to attend a 90 minute conference.
As someone who spends quite a lot of time travelling between Swansea and London on the train, and being in London for a proportion of the year to visit my partner's parents, I know how expensive being in the UK's capital city really is, and how expensive travelling between Swansea and London is. I'm not going to lie; it costs a hell of a lot to travel between the two places, even with a student railcard. However, if you plan your journey as well in advance as possible and, with a 16-25 railcard (which, we've established, those travelling would be eligible for), a return journey can cost you as little as £23 and a maximum of £40. There are corners in which cost of travelling can be cut, but it is clearly not evident in this instance.
Many students have questioned if an overnight stay was really necessary, with the conference ending at 7pm, and a train journey back to Swansea, those travelling could potentially be back in Swansea by midnight.
Secondly, our student newspaper, The Waterfront (incidentally, the paper I work for) was restricted on the reporting the story pending an investigation. The story was picked up by Aber Student Media of Aberystwyth University instead, meaning that the story was still published, and students still read about it. After causing a lot of noise, we were finally allowed to go to print.
As a student journalist, it's pretty obvious that I'm a lover of the freedom of the press. I understand why the story initially had to be put on hold; the university, Mr Raja, and the union had to have time to prepare their responses to the claims. My issue with holding the story however is that students were being denied information about their union and president that is important to them. I cannot think of a situation in the history of any students' union where censorship has worked. Censorship always breeds more media coverage, and thus, closer attention to the situation that was originally being censored.
Furthermore, I like being able to choose what news I read and by the union holding the story over, they were making the news more difficult to obtain. This is an important story for Swansea University students, and it should not have been hidden from them.
Thirdly, a group of students have instigated a petition to remove Mr Raja from office. The group needs signatures from a mere 3% of the student population to begin the process to remove him from his position as president.
The group claim that Mr Raja is abusing his expenses and has brought the union into disrepute on many occasions throughout this academic year, including the nationally covered controversy over the Pole Fitness Society ban, and the more recent mismanagement of the 7 to 5 officer campaign.
The latter was poorly advertised throughout the union, with a total of 184 students of a potential 18,000 voting to remove the positions of Women's Officer and International Officer from the FTO team; two positions which are, in my opinion, quite important to the students' union. The role of International Officer especially, considering the building of a second campus for engineering and business studies a few miles away from the current campus, where it has been estimated that around 50% of students will be international.
The leader of the group has stated in the latest issue of The Waterfront that "Enough is enough."
And maybe enough is enough. The latest issue of The Waterfront has the front page headline; MELTDOWN! BID TO OUST PRESIDENT. If a group of students, no matter their size, feel strongly enough about the issue to go out of their way to make a petition to remove the current president from office, clearly there is something wrong.
It is sad that more Swansea University students this week are going to get involved with their union in this way. University is an ideal environment for students to develop political opinions, with freedom to test various schools of thought. But, at the last democratic referendum at Swansea students' union which removed two FTO positions representing female and international students, a mere 1% of the student body voted. It is unbelievable that in such an important process regarding how students are represented, so few turned out to vote. The sad truth may be that students simply do not see the students' union as having a significant impact on their lives, especially when being occupied with their studies.
Students are disengaged with our union and it needs to change. Maybe this is the only way to change it. Maybe it won't make any impact at all. It is the choice of each student to either engage with or ignore the union but, if we as young people ignore our union, we can be certain that the union will forget about the individuals outside of the union bubble. Engagement of any sort can only benefit us as individuals and we should genuinely fear for a future where this no longer occurs.