Saturday, 8 March 2008

Populist Politics, the Student Way

In this guest post, Brother G reflects on the state of student politics at Keele University.

Last week saw Keele University Student Union's sabbatical election. This, for those not in the know, is the annual extravaganza whereby our current union administration put in enough personal appearances over the course of a fortnight to fool people into believing that student politics matters. With Keele finding itself teetering on the precipice of management-instigated ruin in recent months, one would be forgiven for believing that such an event would bring a sense of urgency to the contest. Would a team of student officers prepared and capable of dealing with the growing issues surrounding the university be elected, and with that bring a fresh wave of optimism as the current (inarguably lacklustre) administration’s ekes out the final months of its term of office?

There is no lack of problems developing in Keele, and indeed within the education sector in general, that need addressing. University management, headed by Vice-Chancellor Janet Finch, have recently decided to fast-track the redundancies of over half of the teaching staff within the School of Economics and Management Studies, shamelessly violating legal obligations and their own procedures in the process! Students in one Halls of Residence have found themselves thrown out of their regular accommodation with the promise of it being ‘renovated’, only to be sent back to blocks which would still fail a routine health and safety inspection (though admittedly they would last slightly longer due to the obvious difficulty for a construction expert in spotting mould through an additional coat of paint). Meanwhile, in nearby Stoke-on-Trent, the threat of school closures hangs over the city due to a lack of government funding and the continuing trend towards privatising public services. With such a rapidly escalating spate of problems within the education system, surely this would be the time for students to stand up and speak out against the issues affecting them.

Unfortunately this was not the case. Indeed, these elections have done nothing except further validate the claim that modern student politics is little more than a glorified popularity contest. However, what is less clear is whether this is truly a result of apathy within the student body, or merely due to a campaign system that leaves little scope for broadcasting any serious political message. With only one 3-minute speech and a two-page manifesto to properly explain their policies, candidates are then forced to rely on social networking, excessive leafleting and shameless flattery to garner the vote of the rest of the student body. Given the amount of students who openly refused to vote on these grounds, and the apparent lack of turnout even from the more politically conscious section of the student body, it seems likely that a system which lent greater emphasis to the issues that mattered and reduced the social voting element which serves as a crutch in current Student Union campaigns would go a long way to alleviating the negative stigma which overshadows student politics.

All in all, this campaign served as little more than a disappointing reminder that student politics is but a faded shadow of its former glory. However, with the current undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the state of the NUS (most clearly seen in the recent ‘Choose Change’ campaign), it seems that on a national level at least students are beginning to once again find a voice that isn’t slurred from alcoholic voting bribes. Likewise, the continued presence of the higher education community at national anti-war and climate change rallies, combined with the burgeoning number of politically active societies within universities, show that all is not lost within the world of student politics. While it is clear that the days of student bodies acting as the vanguard of radical movements are far behind us, and perhaps even further ahead of us, for those of us who can muster the optimism to see it, the consciousness remains; all that is missing is the spark.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

on NUS, the whole choose change thing is about the bureaucracy consolidating their grip and bringing NUS more into line as a commercialised charity rather than a cmapaigning student body. It's also about making it more along the lines of what student unions sabbs want - something that doesn't show them up - this is the same student sabbs who are elected on a popularity contest.

what i've been saying for a while is that the political groups should try and use su elections to get their message heard - or if the elections are a waste of thime to campaign for a body that will fight on issues.

for me it's the leadership in local su's thats missing

complexsystemofpipes said...

It's all been a bit mental with the elections here in manchester, see my post on the subject.