Cynicism and apathy. Something we've come to identify not just with students, but wider society at large. It's growing all the time, so we're told. People care less, look out for themselves more and generally try to find fault in everything.
It's a big problem for Democracy (with a big 'D'), and democratic governments have come to fear it. It's an even bigger problem for Students' Unions, not least here in Hull. Not only are there always questions about competence of Sabbatical Officers and other leaders (Can you actually do something for me?); there's also the issue of the actual point of Students' Unions. (Can anyone?)
At Hull University Union, we put our members' first every time. Everything we do, we do it for and because of our students. That's not just talk - we have a long and proud history of listening to students tell us that their library isn't up to standard, that their housing is a joke, that they feel like their voices aren't being heard and then - most importantly, doing something about it.
And yet, on campus and online, it's hard to ignore the growing tide of confusion and genuine dislike that is aimed at our leaders and at students' unions in general.
Now, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one; so here it is. I'm President of a Students' Union, and I personally don't think we represent all of our members. I don't know any form of democratic body that does. Students are so diverse, so varied, it would literally be impossible. That's okay, but it also means that there are going to be disappointed people out there. How do we deal with that?
The first thing to say is that this isn't, as some would like you to believe, a new problem. People have always been angry, they've always felt powerless, and they've always voted for people and then been disappointed. In the same way that our leaders (be they student or not) are not suddenly all awful, students haven't decided that they dislike everything and everyone apropos of nothing.
It's also a different context, and a different time. Students are bloody angry, and they should be. 9K fees, cutting of EMA, fees in FE and a general sense that young people can be ignored or patronised makes me furious. Just like most other people I speak to. Student leaders have dropped the ball, both locally and nationally. Promises have been broken, changes never realised. Why are we surprised people better and want more?
My most controversial point comes next. Do students want or even need a Students' Union all the time, in every facet of their lives? I speak to many students who see us through their little prism - their course rep, the Advice Centre and the bars. If they know about the other services we provide and don't use them, because they genuinely don't need to, what's wrong with that?
Finally, we should see the increase of student complaints, the rising expectations of students and increase in people willing to put their views across - not least in an online forum - as an opportunity, not as a challenge. I know I got into this whole Students' Union thing because I was angry and wanted change. Why can't we do the same to the apathetic masses now?
What we need to be doing as Students' Unions is speaking to students; see them as individual people, not as members. We are voters, parents, citizens and everything in between. Everyone needs a Students' Union in some way, let's make them want it. We do that by personalising our offer to students, by changing and by adapting.
Yes, there is apathy, and cynicism. No, not everyone is going to like everything we're going to say or do. That doesn't mean we lose heart and stop trying. Nor does it mean we carry on as we have before. We adapt, we change and we progress in a changing world with a different type of student.Suggest a correction