It has been said that student politics is so bitter precisely because the stakes are so low. Nowhere is the truth of this adage this more apparent than at the University of Edinburgh, where this week, in an unprecedented move, the Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) took legal action against The Student newspaper. Whilst this story is undeniably Edinburgh-centric, the sight of a student union behaving in an unnecessarily extreme way will be one which is familiar with students throughout the country.
Personally, I have never taken much of an interest in student politics. Generally suspicious of the motives of those who run for democratically elected office, I regard the whole student election process as an exercise in futility; the ideas put forward by various candidates are so minimal in difference, I doubt voting for one or the other would have much of an impact on my university life. Nonetheless, I concede there are things which student associations do which are worthwhile, and that some of their aims are noble. However, the increasing politicization of these bodies means that any good they do is sidelined by the sheer tedium of debates over whether to declare Tony Blair a war criminal. This is a symptom of people who do not grasp their irrelevance in the grand scale of things; the decision to take legal action against the paper reinforces this notion.
Not much can be said about the action taken just now, for legal reasons. However, what is certain, is that a couple of months down the line, the decision taken by EUSA will be regarded as completely disproportionate to what was at stake. It wasn't Watergate. No one was taking their husbands speeding points, or having an extramarital affair. The reasons put forward by the paper for trying to publish the story are principled, and anyone who believes in freedom of the press would be hard pushed to disagree with them. As a democratically elected student body, the student population have a right to know about the conduct of their student association, especially when they are being paid to carry out the service. The newspaper ensures students are informed about this, and taking action against them begins a disturbing precedent. Now, what can be said about EUSA and what cannot be said? Whilst the paper may be criticized for biting the hand that feeds it (EUSA advertise heavily in the paper), it would be cowardly not to report on the political wranglings which take place in these organizations.
Sadly, this grandiose action is not atypical behaviour for a student body to take. Throughout the country, students associations are involving themselves in increasingly unnecessary political squabbles, aimed at achieving some lofty goal but in reality alienating the student populous. It could be the move made by the University of East Anglia's student union to ban Six Nations games from being shown on campus, due to a boycott of RBS (thankfully the decision has been reversed). Or it could be the debate over whether bottled water should even be stocked on campus at the University of Nottingham. Or, once again in Edinburgh, where only last week EUSA decided to declare it no longer believed in the royal family. Great. So what?
In the most recent EUSA presidential elections, there was one candidate, James Woods, who had the sense to ask whether EUSA should be embroiling itself in making political statements, arguing (truthfully) that this is a minority concern. Unfortunately, he came third. Fair; that's how democracy works. I suspect that his views were so mainstream so as to render him unelectable by those who tend to engage themselves in the student politics scene. When the winner, James McAsh, was announced, his supporters burst into a rendition of 'The Internationale.' It makes you wonder how representative these individuals are; whilst enjoying a sizeable influence among the student population, not everyone subscribes to revolutionary Socialism.
Despite this bad press, student unions do play an important function. When they work well, they shouldn't be denigrated, and their basic goals are decent: improving the student experience, whether that be through promoting well being or supporting societies. Anyone can appreciate this. Its when they start declaring we should adopt veganism that issues arise. Furthermore, whilst not related, the decision of EUSA to censor the newspaper and of student unions to proclaim political edicts are symbolic of organizations with delusions of grandeur. Student bodies should represent the majority, not a minority of highly idealistic and vocal activists. Start dealing with issues that students care about, stop meddling in pointless political disputes. While you are at it, don't go about censoring newspapers.