It has been over six months since I passed on my role as YUSU’s Policy Coordinator to my elected successor. Since then, I’ve taken some time to think about how things went and how the academic year as a whole has gone for the Union. After the Full-Time Officer debates of the 2018 elections, I was invited to share my thoughts on my year in office and beyond, so here they are: a little late, admittedly, but with luck still of interest.
The last academic year was a huge year for Union policy. The profile of the policy process has improved; more students realise that they have another way of setting their Union’s agenda. Over twelve months, students sent through many detailed and wide-ranging ideas for change and offered tens of thousands of words of feedback in support or against them.
I’ve learned a lot about people who come to study at this institution. The University of York is full of colourful characters: fervent campaigners, sharp-witted critics, hardworking activists and skilful writers. They will go the extra mile for the causes that matter to them. Students at York care: they care about what is happening, they care about their causes and they are not afraid of putting themselves forward to fix something if they believe it’s broken.
But, time and again, York’s students invest their strongest efforts in the same cause: changing their Students’ Union. Looking back, so many of the suggestions put into the policy process, several put forward by elected representatives, asked YUSU to change. The same can be said of the forty-five proposals that my successor has received in his first term.
Changing YUSU was a major theme of the year’s elections. It was the first time that a ‘vote RON’ election campaign was more than an online joke. An official, organised movement, championed by its own presidential candidate, assembled to encourage students to sabotage their Union’s elections. “Vote RON,” we were told, to force another election in which the “real issues” would be on the table.
I remember attending the Full-Time Officer debates. Though he had no intention of winning the contest, Oscar Jefferson, the RON representative and former News Editor of this outlet, set the standard. So often, when he listed where YUSU had supposedly let students down, the other presidential candidates would agree with him. Before long, all of potential presidents were talking about where YUSU was going wrong. We didn’t hear so much about the student experience, or changing life at the University of York, but we heard a lot from each presidential candidate about why our Union is somehow the most inept organisation in the world and that the overriding duty of the next president was to sort it out.
It’s not just the candidates who took it upon themselves to critique YUSU. To many of our elected representatives, the greatest responsibility of an elected officer is to repair a broken Students’ Union. It’s why some representatives are happy to tell their constituents, plainly and sincerely, that YUSU is the source of students’ problems, or batter, criticise and shame the Union in public fora.
Why is it that many York students, notably those who are elected to office, labour so much to change the Students’ Union?
Having been the Policy Coordinator, I don’t mean to suggest that changing YUSU isn’t the right thing to do; nor do I discourage students from being critical of YUSU. I’ve done it myself, in many ways. I have questioned, satirised and complained. My words were there to be read when I stood for election and remain there. Accountability is vital, particularly in a democracy, and the more that we can reasonably question our officers’ actions, ask them how they spend their time and YUSU’s money, and show them whether students favour what they’re doing or not, the better.
But we have to remember that, when all is said and done, the Union is here to fulfil a purpose. It serves to represent our interests during our studies. Our elected officers and the Union staff are working to help students get the best out of their time at the University of York and will stand by us if we are ever let down by the University. Changing YUSU ought only to be a means to improving its representational capacity.
Too often, we lose focus of the bigger picture; too often, our most driven members have directed their efforts towards changing YUSU over changing the student experience for the better. Sometimes we end up doing more harm than good, not to the organisation but to other members. When we are so committed to fighting for what is right, we can strike out. We can, in a moment of anger, or when incensed by an act of wrongdoing, lash out at those near us or blame them for someone else’s fault. In this year’s big referendum, students dug up each other’s online pasts and used them against each other; they tried to mislead our media and tear each other down with misstatements and malice. Union staff received written complaints and demands from students that bordered on blackmail and threats. If the world of social media has told us anything, it is that we can and do speak to people online in unpardonable ways, simply because our words are typed, not spoken.
What good will it do for students to find innovative ways to trip their Union and its members up? How will students’ lives at York improve if officers see publicly shaming their own organisation as the best way to support students? The average student on the ‘66’ bus sees only a gaggle of college chairs, journalists and liberation activists, a “bubble” that all this year’s presidential candidates identified, engaged in constant civil war over whose view of YUSU is the most just. Consequently, many students either lose any faith in their Union, or just switch off.
The new generation of Sabbatical Officers must not take the last year’s events for granted. They should confront the bitterness and mistrust that so many students hold toward their Union. They must ensure that RON’s best result was in 2018 and that it always will be.
But, above all, the new generation of officers must come together and show the University of York that we mean business. Rather than struggling in vain to perfect the Union, we must work together against the problems that all students face: the exorbitant fees of a commodified education; high rents and exploitative landlords; students’ fragile and discredited representation on the national level; and a mental health crisis that has afflicted so many bright minds. York’s future student leaders must make sure that our representatives work together for the common good of the Union and its members, rather than to test and undermine the organisation.
Think about that new student who only a few weeks ago was packing her bags, saying her goodbyes and looking for Heslington on the map. Her thoughts then are still fresh in her mind now. She knows that it will be a long three years far away from home, living in halls that she likely cannot afford even with her government loan. She thinks about the money she’ll need for food, the rent, nights out, the costs of a social life. She worries about whether others there will be “better” than her: better-educated, better-dressed, better-connected; richer, cleverer, “better people.” She wonders whether she’ll make friends; whether people will like her and accept her. She worries about whether she will be able to make an appointment with the doctor or the dentist if she needs one. She quivers at the thought of the debt she’ll have at the end of it all. She asks herself, is she really “good enough” to study at the University of York? Is she strong enough to make it to the end?
The state of YUSU is not what a new undergraduate student worries about on the ride to York. It is also not the priority of any elected representative; and it should not be the focus of a campus election. Though changing YUSU is important, the dominant goal must always be the representation of students, the laying down of the gauntlet to the University. On policy, students should concentrate on coming up with stances that the Union can take, campaigns that the Union should launch and actions the Union can take – all with the objective of standing up for students at their time at University. Policy processes are rarely the right place for students’ ideas for tinkering with YUSU itself. The Union is a means to an end, so let’s make sure that it’s used to achieve great things rather than it’s the subject of endless reform and refinement.
Students at York are enthused, passionate and dedicated, but their full power to change will never be realised if it is maligned or misdirected. If our representatives can harness this untapped reservoir of energy, we can promise every student at the University of York the outstanding academic and political support that each one deserves. I hope that the new officers come together and fix their sights on the obstacles that all Union members must confront.