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Does this referendum show that YUSU officers are unifying or divisive?

Image: Violet Daniels
Image: Violet Daniels
Image: Violet Daniels

The current YUSU referendum on adopting a Part-Time Officer position for the Working Class and Social mobility is currently in full swing and voting will finish with an extended voting period, at 9am on Monday 13th. It has been a campaign of ebbs and flows, which begs the question of whether it is really needed at all. YUSU officers are there to offer support to minority groups. This is great to some extent, but what if you don’t fit into one of their categories and still feel like you need support? Having more support available is obviously a good thing, but placing people into categories is something that feels a bit alienating and restricting. Putting names and categories onto groups of people serves to distinguish them from the rest in a unique way. There is not going to be a referendum on whether YUSU officers should exist altogether any time soon, so these critiques have to be brushed aside in light of the current debate.

The ‘No’ campaign believes that the appointment of a Working Class and Social Mobility Officer would do more to divide students than unify them. Having an officer dedicated to a class identity could be a cause for greater feelings of difference instead of incorporating students as one unified body. This method of separation within the campus community could exacerbate the class divide rather than eradicate it.

Another argument made by the ‘No’campaign claims that having this officer would install a sense of paternalism – candidates to be YUSU officers tend to be from middle-class backgrounds, the ‘No’ side claims, they would have no real understanding of the class barriers and issues that working-class students face while they undertake their studies.

The ‘No’ side claims that York is beyond class and that it does not, or should not, exist in universities. This is idealism at its finest; class is a very real issue at York and many other universities. However, all of these points are true to a certain extent but class is a problem and it needs to be recognised. Whether having the support of a Working Class Officer could remedy the class divides that are so entrenched in the system, is doubtable, as class is so entrenched and will probably always be there. But if we must have YUSU officers, it makes sense for them to represent all minority or disadvantaged groups.

Although, in principle the concept of having officers related and assigned to certain groups of people- goes against the kind of unified and free society that university promotes, they exist and are probably not going to go away any time soon. Personally, I view this YUSU debate in a similar light to feminism:, it seems unnecessary in a society based on sexual and gender equality, but the reality is different to how we would like it to be, hence its need. Similarly, we should not need representative officers because the campus community should be free from labels and categories of distinction. But, social divisions and inequalities existent in the wider system permeate university society too, prompting the need for these special officers to represent the underrepresented.

On the other hand, the ‘Yes’ campaign recognises that there are evident class divisions within this university. It draws on the real experiences of students who have felt classism whilst being here. Students have expressed that, in some environments at York, they have felt inferior, less worthy and like outsiders. These concerns need to be taken seriously if we are to create a platform at York that is open to supporting these concerns. In having a Working Class Officer, YUSU would be one step closer to recognising that people from low income backgrounds face institutional barriers that other students may not. Working-class students face their own unique social and economic issues and having an officer would recognise this. Although it puts a label on a group of people, in reality, that label is probably already there and we should do the best we can to address their problems. It would be idealistic to claim that class does not exist within the university environment when it so evidently does. In adopting this officer, it would formally be recognised and offer help to those students who feel constrained, or like it is a barrier to their educational attainment.

Overall, this referendum is a difficult one for me, as I can see both sides. Part of me sees having these officers in the first place as more divisive than unifying as it creates distinct groups within the university environment which perhaps, should not be there. Part of me thinks that having these officers draws more distinction and attention to difference which should not be there in the university environment. However, in swaying towards a ‘Yes’ vote, I feel like we need to be more realistic. University does have a class problem and this does need to be recognised just as other problems have been with other officers we already have. It is idealistic to assume that class is not a problem when it is, and probably always will be. The concerns are that the officer will not be from that background themselves and will not be able to emphasise with the problems that working class students may face. If we are to have a truly effective and representative Working Class Officer, then this should be a main priority.

The YUSU referendum on electing a Part-Time Officer closes on Monday 13th November) at 9am. University students can vote online using their university log- in.

The Facebook pages for the official referendum campaigns can be viewed below: