By Robyn Banks
Over the last few weeks, UEA Students’ Union has received a number of comments from certain students on social media, complaining about it being ‘political’ and choosing to take political actions such as organising boycotts and funding students to travel to rallies. The SU is also being accused of acting undemocratically for taking these actions. Whilst these accusations are nothing new, in these recent cases the accusers are creating an obscure binary on what the SU can and can’t be seen doing, with a particular focus on only serving certain students’ needs.
This is exemplified in the specific targeting of the decision to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel for its abuses in Palestine. The BDS policy at UEA was originally passed both by students who supported the movement and those from the region, who had emotional ties to the ongoing conflict. When it came up for lapse, as every SU policy does after a set period, it was defended by a Palestinian student who explained why it was so important to him and to other students as well as to the nation-state itself for the union to hold this stance, despite attempts to cast him and the policy as anti-Semitic. This is a policy that a group of students cares deeply about, and have put forward passionately and convincingly through existing democratic channels on numerous occasions. Its targeting in these diatribes is based upon an ahistorical view of how it came to be, an attempt to portray it as the misguided whim of a few individuals within the SU, rather than the committed work of a section of the student community.
Sadly, these views represent a complete lack of awareness of the history of the student movement. The image at the top of this article depicts a 1970s demo in Norwich against the introduction of fees for students from the commonwealth studying in the UK. This snapshot, as well as several others still on display in the SU building, represents not only the history of UEA SU as a political being, but also gives a glimpse of the wider radical history of the student movement. In the ‘60s and ‘70s students were at the centre of the anti-war movement in the UK. UK students fought to end apartheid in South Africa on their campuses right through the ‘80s. At the same time they were fighting to stop fees being introduced, to prevent maintenance grants being scrapped, and generally against universities being shitty towards their students. This radical history has brought the student movement, and SUs within it, to where it is now: a major player not only in the fight against against the further marketisation of education, but also in the fight against climate change, and the work towards the much needed decolonisation of the curriculum.
Those who call for SUs to be apolitical are often people who have little to lose in these fights because they are white and middle class enough to be able to create a comfortable level of cognitive dissonance from these issues. The supposedly serious issues that many otherwise ‘apolitical’ students choose to get up in arms about are quite minor compared to the life-changing issues listed above, but are portrayed as equal to them. Even more telling is that fact that many people won’t put their name to claims of SU failure, using anonymous websites or facebook pages instead of standing by the issue they’ve created. Many people in the student movement, from SU officer candidates to ex-NUS President Malia Bouattia, have faced severe harassment for standing by what they believed in. These people often the privilege to be able to create a level of distance from the issues they faced, and yet they stand their ground when they face continued harassment both online and offline. This isn’t to say that anonymity isn’t a valid tactic – it’s actually powerful and important for many activists – but when it is used to shout blue murder over the smallest things whilst harassing people for no good reason, it undermines any valid complaint the anonymised person may have had.
Student Unions should always be political. This isn’t a sign that they are undemocratic – it’s the very opposite
The calls for an apolitical SU also has the effect of giving the Tories exactly what they want. Let’s not ignore the fact that the Office for Students, the new HE regulator created by the Cameron and May governments, is designed to try and undermine student unions in their attempts to be radical and political. Those calling for student unions to be apolitical are only helping to bring about this agenda of the further destruction of higher education. We can’t just focus on the price of drinks in the bar and how much societies can and can’t do. Student Unions can and often do deal with both political and pastoral issues within their democratic structures. Over the last year at UEA there have been numerous policies that help societies and sports clubs, as well as ones that set out political stances. Whilst this has been ignored by the apolitical brigade, it is the basic truth that the ability to do both is that what makes SUs what they are: organisations designed to represent the views and needs of students, in all areas. By taking away the ability to be political, you take away the ability to fight for any cause that students may believe in, and reduce SUs to nothing more than nightclub managers.
Student Unions should always be political. This isn’t a sign that they are undemocratic – it’s the very opposite. Any student body will always have people who have views and ideas on how to change the world and, with it, how to change the area they’re in. Those who are screaming and shouting about the need to be apolitical are, ultimately, privileged individuals who can ignore the political issues they name irrelevant, simply because they aren’t directly affected. They are not the people who have lost their families and homes because of wars, or the ones that have to experience lecturers using racist remarks without batting an eye. They are just people who think the world should only work for them and their issues. Luckily for everyone else, it doesn’t, and our SUs should continue to take action alongside those who are more affected by the conflicts of the world.
Featured image courtesy of UEA SU
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