Picture courtesy of Matt Dinnery
Student politics has a problem. A big problem. For my whole University experience the politics that surrounds the lives of students has been one of idealism and tolerance, two extremely valuable principles to stand by especially in the age of £9000 fees, bombs dropping on Syria, and the refugee crisis that has swept across Europe. However this, alongside the absolutely necessary implementation of so-called 'Safe Spaces' where people are, in principle, allowed to say what they believe without fear of discrimination based on sex, gender, race etc., has unwittingly built a political structure within student politics nationwide that is damaging the student movement.
The issue is a simple one, the stranglehold that part of the political spectrum have over the discourse in student politics is backed up by a hateful preaching of tolerance. I have been involved in student politics at my own University's association, EUSA, having run for a sabbatical position as well as arguing against motions within EUSA's democratic structure. However, the only thing that I have ever been met with is hostility and the belief that anyone who disagrees with the accepted status-quo is wrong by default, with no space for debate.
I am not talking here about safe space, although it does impact my point. Safe Space policies across the country in Universities and colleges are there to protect people and enable people to say what they believe in without fear of discrimination. That is, unequivocally, a positive.
However in my experience at Edinburgh, student politics is currently conducted in a hostile environment totally devoid of debate. I recently argued at a Student Council meeting, the main legislative body in EUSA, against a motion that politically I agreed with, but on a practical basis I disagreed. Having had experience in the area that was being voted on, I hoped my knowledge would at least inform a more wide-ranging debate in order to help people make a fully informed decision on the matter.
What instead happened was a barrage of abuse and harassment due my disagreement. I was interrupted by strategic coughing, something that had taken place during another speaker's speech earlier on, and during the time allocated for general comments, I was told I was "disgusting". The atmosphere was intimidating, hostile, and far from conducive for rational debate. The guilty parties were, ironically, the same people who rightly preach tolerance.
This way of conducting student politics, with issues of liberation politics and broad political statements such as the NUS's laughable statement that they had "voted against intervention in Syria" are given almost untouchable prevalence and importance, meaning that the real, day-to-day issues that face the majority of students today are no longer the priority, and instead become irrelevancies. To disagree with this current status-quo, as I discovered, is to be labelled bigoted and, the ultimate insult in student politics, right wing.
The days of actual debate is long gone; in EUSA, an opponent to a motion does not get to respond to comments about their statement, and are also prohibited from providing further clarification about their stance regardless of what is said after they speak. Any semblance of what might be called a reasonable debate is thrown out of the window once any position strays away from the political status-quo.
It is perfectly possible to have a reasonable debate, that is what people go to University to do; be it discussing Descartes or Orwell or Joyce. Yet within the self-protective and isolationist bubble of the left-wing, idealistic politics that dominates student politics, debate is shut down even in the face of opposing viewpoints.
It is the job of student associations and the NUS to prioritise the issues that affect students on a day-to-day basis. It might sound banal, but the price of a bottle of Irn-Bru at the student union's shop (£1.30, 15p more than Tesco in EUSA shops), the price for a bowl of soup in the union buildings (£2.50 in EUSA buildings), the increasing rent prices of student flats across the country, the lack of credible student support and mental health support in Universities, hidden course costs of hundreds of pounds, these are the issues that student associations have the power and the sphere of influence to achieve results with, and these are the issues that come second, third, or even last on agendas across the country in the very same student associations.
Until the deluded idealistic belief that individual student associations have a meaningful impact on the world stage on issues such as Syria is understood to be secondary to their remit, student politics as a movement which actually improves the lives of the students it supposedly represents is dead and buried.