07/03/2014 11:15 GMT | Updated 07/03/2014 11:59 GMT

Why Are Students So Disengaged With Student Union Elections?

Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

Nothing polarises the student population quite like election season; some students passionately throw themselves into campaigning and canvassing while others are left brimming with indifference.

University has long been the place for young people to find their political feet and participate in world-changing protests, so why does turnout at student union elections remain embarrassingly low?

Student elections seldom manage to draw even half the student body to cast a ballot. St. Andrews Students' Association is the only SU to have ever exceeded a 50% turnout - something it has managed twice. Imperial College London managed an admirable 41% turnout in 2013, and Sussex recently celebrated one in three students voting.

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Those engaged in student politics seem optimistic. Sheffield SU president Ally Buckle told HuffPostUK she believed students do care about officer elections.

"Over the past few years we have managed a turnout of between 30 to 35%, which is pretty impressive when you consider campaigns are run on a budget of £40, meaning votes are won not by flashy well resourced campaigns but through the effort of candidates in engaging the student body."

Other unions have not fared so well. Last year the University of London announced that it was planning to close the ULU partly because fewer than 3,000 of the 120,000-strong student body voted in the last election. One professor highlighted the best turnout ULU has ever managed was a meagre 2%.

Unions are desperate to encourage higher turnouts for their elections, and you can't blame Leicester's SU for lack of trying. In February the union announced they would be shutting down their SU for one day to raise awareness of the services the SU provides, but a huge backlash ensued, with the union accused of blackmail. One Leicester student referred to the reaction to this decision as a "colossal shitstorm".

So why the disengagement?

It is worth remembering these are elections for a students' union: a body which represents students and provides important services, but, it is still relatively small fry in the real world. In the words of "It's not as if the Union President can start wars against other universities."

It may be students see their union as important, but just an institution that could run itself. Indeed most of the officer workload is bureaucratic, often with the president and one or two others being the only officers with the ability to set the union's political agenda.

Much of the time, students struggle to take the elections seriously because there is a perception the officers don't take it seriously either. One Leeds student told us he is convinced "most of them just do it for their CV anyway".

With a one year term and the majority not seeking to be re-elected, student officers can get away with not delivering on their campaign promises and avoiding accountability.

Or perhaps it's because voting is not the student way of changing things. If students don't like something, they campaign, they protest and they occupy. Is voting simply too 'mainstream' for campus hipsters?

Some students think student democracy can be revived by using innovative new approaches.

Hull University student George Allen devised a novel way of campaigning to be president of his SU. His website took anonymous policy suggestions and a Facebook-style 'thumbs up' system so users could rate the suggestions. If elected, George promised to enact the top rated policies.

"This is absolutely the answer to political apathy amongst 18-25 year olds," George declared. "It's not just a problem for unions, it's a national problem, and politics needs to move towards our generation instead of forcing us to move towards their clunky out-of-date notions of democracy.

He added: "Students love to piss around. We discussed this at the design stage and we decided that if the top policy is to remove a rib and do a Marilyn Manson - well, I've made my pact with democracy. I'll just get on with it."

This alternative approach appears to be gaining in popularity; one candidate, this time for the NUS' president position, was the inanimate carbon rod, as made famous by The Simpsons.

Not to mention Oxford University's new student union president "spoof" candidate Louis Trup, whose manifesto included "I often wear flip flops."


Trup's manifesto poster

In short, whilst some students deeply care about their elections, it seems there are at least twice as many who don't.

Perhaps students simply do not see the student elections as having a significant impact on their lives, being otherwise occupied with studies, sport, drinking and the like. As one Sheffield University student told us: "To be honest, I'm just not that fussed."

To quote James Hope again, "the average student is already too preoccupied to be sufficiently concerned to look into a campaign in any great depth... we just want to get to our classes on time".