My name is Joe Lennard and I am President of the University of London Institute in Paris Students Union. I will be neither surprised nor remotely offended if it is a university of which you are not aware. Our unique status as the only UK university permanently housed abroad and one which only roughly 150 students attend, explains our anonymity. As you can imagine, the student experience at ULIP is vastly different from what might be on offer at a typical UK institution. However, we have a fully functioning SU that does its utmost to provide for and support its students.
Whilst in London over Easter, I received an email from the University of London Union requesting my attendance at an emergency Senate meeting to pass a vote of no confidence against the London Student newspaper editor, Jen Izaakson. The meeting was advertised to me as a sensationalised Big Brother-style eviction. I was told it was 'the big one' and 'if there's one 'amazing' Senate you're going to come to, this has to be it' Nearing the end of my tenure and having had no previous involvement in student politics in London, I thought it would be an interesting experience - above all, it was gratifying to be given the chance to represent my university in a wider forum.
In the past year, I have at times felt distant from what I thought was real student politics in the UK and envious of my counterparts in larger universities. I had imagined that student politics would be a university equivalent of the Model UN. However, I have come to realise that the participants are for the most part inexperienced students playing at politics but with serious repercussions. It is not a game. There are liars and bullies who abuse their power and, above all, demonstrate complete and utter incompetence. They have the ability to make life-changing decisions.
The four-hour meeting left me drained, outraged and embarrassed. From start to finish it was an absolute farce. The meeting had barely started before Izaakson and her solicitor were questioning the very legitimacy of the meeting itself. After almost an hour of tedious deliberation, we were able to proceed. Vitriol and contempt were hurled from one side to the other, whilst the menacing audience bayed for the senators' blood. As the hours passed and the temperature both literally and metaphorically climbed, tensions rose and I found myself agreeing with Izaakson's assertion that the meeting felt like a Soviet show trial. The debate went round in circles several times, the same shambolic and often personal accusations were repeated over and over again.
Eventually, Izaakson suggested, quite rightly, in the absence of sensible debate, that we should get on with it and vote. I chose to abstain on the basis of the preposterous circumstances in which I was expected to make a decision. In this Kangaroo court scenario there could be no legitimate outcome. Furthermore, to carry this vote could well jeopardise this young woman's future career prospects. A vote of no confidence would have been reckless and wholly inappropriate. To my surprise, the motion failed. Thankfully, this political pantomime in which I briefly played a part, was over.
Back in Paris I breathed a sigh of relief. The venom and sheer ineptitude that I had seen in London is so far removed from the scandal-free, positively friendly environment to which I am accustomed. My students union and its imbricated 'politics' may well, represent only a drop in the ocean of student politics, but if the fiasco I had the misfortune of witnessing is symptomatic of the overall political landscape in universities across the UK, then some things truly and fundamentally have to change.
The political scientist Wallace Stanley Sayre once said that 'academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low'. Yet even when the stakes are at their lowest, there must still be a place for common decency. The sentiment I want to convey in light of my experience is not one of passive disenfranchisement, rather, somewhat aptly, an unconditional vote of no confidence.