In light of the government's recent moves to curtail the ability of students' unions to campaign or lobby for change, it's no coincidence that we are seeing an increase in media stories aiming to discredit SUs and student representatives. From condemnations of 'enforced' consent culture and 'safe spaces' to the thinly-veiled allusions to "trade union reforms" and "accountability" in November's Higher Education Green Paper, make no mistake: students' unions are under attack.
Much of this is being cynically - distractingly - framed in terms of "freedom of speech". However, it's important to scrutinise the political underpinnings of those angry men (and, let's face it, they usually are all white men) who rail against 'no-platforming', equality polices, anti-bullying initiatives or consent classes but are often quick to back measures which seek to depoliticise unions and remove their campaigning teeth. Clearly, while the right to bandy around lazy slurs and push for drunken fumbles with unwilling friends is sacred, the right to criticise government policy or campaign on issues affecting our collective future is a step too far.
The interests of that mysterious cipher, the 'ordinary student', is often cited in defence of such viewpoints. However, to characterise 'ordinary students' as disinterested in anything of a vaguely political bent is highly duplicitous. Recent responses from student bodies across the country to the Junior Doctors Strikes, to maintenance grant cuts, the loss of support for disabled students, the insidious racism of Prevent, Fossil Free campaigns and moves to end the Tampon Tax show that 'ordinary' students do care. Indeed, so swingeing are the cuts, so devastating the removal of financial support to so many, that they have little choice BUT to care. Students simply cannot divorce themselves from the realities of the political climate in which we live.
Clearly, the government's plans for students' unions aren't about accountability or what students "really want". They're about raising a pacified generation so consumed by self-interest that they're afraid to tackle the big issues. They're about closing down one of the last refuges of physical opposition for young people: a place where angry tweets and Facebook statuses coalesce into action and progressive campaigns.
The notion of 'ordinary students' caught in a freedom-of-speech vacuum is thus a smokescreen. For who's really trying to remove debate on campus here? Who's really trying to shut down the settings in which students can challenge government policies and cuts? It's not students' unions - and it's not that go-to scapegoat, the infamous 'safe space policy'. No, the most insidious conditioning comes from a government which actively promotes a system of high-cost education that disciplines students to seek only value for money, rather than to question, engage critically or seek an alternative path to that which drives us quickly - anonymously - into the labour market. The restrictions on freedom come not from protecting the vulnerable, the marginalised or the disenfranchised, but from a system that sees universities as little more than a conveyor belt towards a graduate job; a system that, from day one, pits students against their peers in the pursuit of money, skills and 'aspiration'.
For just as fees keep us shackled by subsuming our critical thinking, so too does the university conveyor push students towards extracurricular activities that can be neatly packaged and sold, bolted on to their CVs to "add value" to our usefulness as human resources. Burdened by the looming spectre of debt, students willingly abandon dissent, community action and even the vaguest notions of youthful fun, thinking that these identikit 'experiences' will help them stand out in a job market which values their 'mouldability'. As the last bastion of community values in a Higher Education system which endorses cut-throat competition for the latest internship, the highest grades and best CV-boosting opportunities, it's no surprise that students' unions are now the latest targets for a government actively seeking to silence dissenting voices.
To lazily cast students' unions as nothing but joyless ban-shops or playgrounds for the latest cadre of wannabe politicians or professional activists is deeply disingenuous. In fact, they are perhaps the only places left on campuses that don't resemble a finishing school for graduate recruiters. They are home to societies, sports clubs, student volunteers and nights out. To carnivals and reading groups, student media and charity fundraisers - and yes, even to student entrepreneurs and Conservative clubs. They are the place where students discover what they love and make friends for life; where the extroverts find their audience and the lost find their niche. Somewhere that awkward young women from small northern towns gain the confidence to discover their principles, then feel the rush of standing up and persuading a room that something is right or wrong. For if you can do it in your union, you can do it on the national stage - and that absolutely petrifies those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Students' unions change lives. Students' unions save lives. With ever-rising fees and ever-decreasing job prospects, students are in desperate need of somewhere they can go to find a group of people with a common purpose. They therefore have a right to consider that space "safe". For out of this common area - this community hub where voices and ideas are nurtured - come the progressive political campaigns which are treated with such disdain by an establishment so indifferent to the concerns of the next generation.
Students' unions aren't perfect. Sometimes they get things wrong - and yes, sometimes the all-consuming political correctness proves counter-productive (though this should perhaps be expected from organisations which exist on the frontlines of contemporary youth identity politics). But with SUs comes a proud campaigning tradition that encompasses support for LGBT+ rights, anti-apartheid movements and now the fight to preserve the very welfare state that is being dismantled around us.
If people want SUs that aren't political, politicians need to stop finding new ways of screwing young people over. As our government seeks so shamelessly to pry apart those institutions which speak up for the marginalised or disaffected, students' unions are more in need of our support than ever.