The author of this article has asked to remain anonymous.
Earlier this month UEA SU held its annual student officer elections. Whilst some of the results of the election caused surprise in some quarters, I’m less interested in those results than in other aspects of the election process and the story they tell about the state of engagement at the union. First, however, a bit of history and context.
In 2017 Union Council voted through the Student Leadership Review. This review set out to increase the role of student engagement across the union and create more opportunities for students to run for positions across the union. It looked to do this by creating four new subcommittees made up of students, new positions for societies and clubs to fill and a number of roles to increase representation for courses and faculties across the university. The creation of all of these roles, amongst the numerous other changes to the bye-laws that make up the union, introduced many new opportunities for students engage with the operation of the SU. The logic behind this is simple: concretely increase the number of students who are on committee positions across the union and you will have measurably increased engagement. Right? Not exactly – correlation doesn’t equal causation. More people in committee positions isn’t by itself equivalent to increased engagement.
Fast forward to March and the 2018 elections, which have brought the problems with this logic to light. Six positions started out as uncontested, becoming seven after a candidate dropped out. Uncontested elections, several of which were won by the officers that had previously held them, show that the union is suffering from an engagement deficit, not the boost in engagement that the Leadership Review alleged to offer.
It should be a point of embarrassment that this is the state of democracy within an institution such as a Student Union
On top of this, not a single student ran for the position of Environment officer. This is unheard of in the memory of those currently at the union. The Ethical and Environmental sub-committee was created in the Leadership Review to bring together ‘policy development, implementation and FTO accountability, and better coordinate societies in this area’. With no one standing for Environment officer, sparking a by-election for the role, the creation of this committee has clearly failed as a solution to issues of engagement. The Environment officer has traditionally always played a big role in helping coordinate Go Green Week, as well as the activities and direct actions of different groups under the environmentalist umbrella. To not have someone run for that despite the number of students who passionately care about the environment at UEA shows the the real deficit of engagement with the SU.
The overall promotion of the elections, both in the build up to them and during elections week itself, was minimal at best. Those who knew that there were elections on were predominantly those who happened to be in Union House; the many who were not on campus due to the snowfall could easily have gone unaware that they were even happening. For the most part, SU social media lay silent, with only the occasional tweet promoting the various discounts and freebies that could be unlocked if people voted. This lack of promotion from the very body running the elections had a direct result on the lack of candidates coming forward. It should be a point of embarrassment that this is the state of democracy within an institution such as a Student Union.
The examples above demonstrate the failings of the leadership review in its aim of increasing engagement. However, the biggest issue with the elections wasn’t the lack of candidates or the failure to properly promote them.
This year’s election had the most toxic atmosphere I’ve experienced in my time at UEA. Whilst factionalism is normal in SUs, one faction in this year’s elections took it to an extreme. They felt the need to create an atmosphere so bad that it resulted in a candidate having to leave the elections, citing bullying. This is unacceptable, as is the failure of the SU to properly deal with these allegations. Many of those I spoke to were left feeling that the election for that role had been tainted by the events that transpired surrounding it.
The question must be asked: what is to be done?
One of the key issues with the leadership review and how it came about was that it was predominantly devised by a group of students who were either already in leadership positions in the union or had considerable prior understanding of how the union worked, resulting in skewed perspectives on how the leadership could change and engagement could be increased.
The actions of certain people in the Union, not just officers, and their vested interests must be scrutinised
If the Union wants actual change to take place we need to have a radical review of the lack of engagement on our campus. This means actually consulting students on why they do or don’t engage and actually tackling the issues that arise from this. It means leaving the shell of Union House and talking to those who have felt left behind by the Union because they’ve not been given the chance to participate. These conversations would make clearer the areas in which the SU is failing instead of showing the union what it thinks of itself. Present and future Campaigns and Democracy officers must look past their voting base and reach out to those who didn’t vote as well as those who voted for other candidates in order to better understand the democratic deficit created by this lack of engagement. It requires an optimistic view of what further engagement can do, and most importantly requires them to do their job to promote the democracy of this union to the fullest extent instead of letting it wither away.
The question of why the Student Leadership Review has been allowed to fail must also be investigated going forward. The actions of certain people in the Union, not just officers, and their vested interests must be scrutinised. The crisis of engagement demonstrated in these elections could signal the development of a democratic deficit so great that it will erode the democratic body itself. Other SUs in a similar position have seen the power taken from representative bodies like Union Council and handed to a few people who can’t be held accountable, leaving an empty husk of a democratic body left to vote on few issues of note and forcing students to run their own campaigns without any support.
These SUs give a vision that could become the future of UEA SU if no action is taken now. New policy must be put in place in order to right the wrongs of the Leadership Review and ensure that the engagement and democracy of the Union can continue on, in a stronger and brighter way than this election allowed.
Featured image credit: UEA SU
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