In my two years as a sabbatical officer I've spent lots of time debating issues and ideas. One that keeps arising time and time again (particularly around election time I might add) is that of the Students' Union being 'Political' - for some this makes sense, for others taking stances this is divisive or unrepresentative. I think that either way your Union is political and I'd like to say why.
In 1992, Prime Minister John Major launched a war on the 'Closed shops' of Students' Unions, claiming they were the biggest thread to British society alongside traffic cones and benefit cheats. He launched a tirade that removed their public funding, made them charities dependent on money from their institution, and changed their membership so people could opt-out but still use their facilities - luckily this wasn't the blow Major thought it would be and opt-outs remain generally quite small across the sector.
The great thing about students and protest is that they have a different versatility to that of the trade union movement. Although students can't withdraw any labour like workers can, they are less at risk financially by taking direct action. Students also have great spaces and resources through SUs to create innovative forms of protest that capture peoples' imaginations.
Students have done some great work on creating change throughout history and in the modern era of students as customers, we are very quick to forget it. One of the NUS' first reports was into healthcare and students played an important role in calling for free universal healthcare, which was later delivered in 1948. The student-led Boerclays Bank campaign was successful in getting Barclays to boycott apartheid South Africa. On my own campus, a group of students occupied the corridor of the College's Senior Managers in protest to the proposed cutting of 2 departments and 40 jobs. The occupation was a huge part of the victory that later came when all those cuts were halted and the management conceded defeat.
Often, when people make arguments against your Students' Union taking a political stance, they tend to be done by the centre-right, who will be up in arms at a Union Council passing an anti-austerity motion or one that criticises a political party, banging the drum of 'We need to represent everyone!' It seems only logical to me that it would be impossible to represent thousands of students in one institution and the very nature of representative democracy is that we collectively vote on the people and policies that represent us.
The other limits of arguing against unions being 'political' is that many issues we debate have direct impacts on students now and in the future. For example, it seems undeniable to me that austerity policies impact young people the hardest and youth employment is still staggeringly high, therefore Students' Unions passing motions to join other SUs, trade unions and political pressure groups in campaigning for fairer economic policies seems like part-and-parcel of a healthy and mature democratic society. As well as this, representing everyone is usually followed by a call for neutrality, though often staying neutral is just as political as taking an overt stance. If an SU doesn't discuss, for example, the selling off of student loans, for me that's a de facto siding with the government, as well as not only representing no one rather than everyone.
The fact is that pretty much everything is political and being political doesn't even have to mean picking up a placard with a rude word written on David Cameron's face. At my Union at Royal Holloway, lots of the campaigns we've ran have been about things like mental health and accessibility for disabled students - both are inherently political in their very nature.
Ultimately, our education is political and parties run on different platforms when it comes to Higher Education, so our Students' Unions need to be political and its stances need to be decided by healthy debate, not running away from discussion or conflict for fear of not representing everyone. None of this comes at the cost of running bars or sports clubs either, I might add.
The Student movement has a long and proud history of discussing and debating what's best for us as the next generation of adults and I don't think we should stop now. The wider national movement of students was born out of World War 1, where there was an annual meeting of student representatives from across the world in France. The student movement then realised the potential we had to change the world and they aimed to make sure nothing as horrible as the Great War happened again. Though it may not always feel like it, I think we have that power now and we shouldn't be afraid to at least discuss the world we want to build at our SUs.
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