Have you ever had the nagging sense that you are making no difference at all?
Rille Raaper, an academic based at Durham university, spoke to SU sabbatical officers from five Russell group universities about their experience of responding to the 2016 Green Paper on higher education. How much of what they did felt like the kind of political activism they had an ownership over, and how much felt like “tinkering around the edges” of a bill they had little love for and would rather see scrapped?
I don’t think I’ll startle any of you by telling you that opinions tended towards the latter. Responses to the green paper tended to be supported by professional SU staff and NUS nationally. It was very much a sense of making an unpopular bill slightly less bad, very much in the vein of politics being the art of the possible. This, after all is how professionals lobby and influence policymakers, stories of tiny changes won after significant effort. Some sabbs were less than content with this way of working, lamenting the “lack of wins” in the campaign.
- The shift towards professionalisation of students’ unions work takes place by professionalising the role and actions of sabbatical officers.
- Participants had conflicting views about their positioning in the consultation. This reflected particularly in the cases where the officers shared their contentment with the policy consultation process and outcomes.
- Some sabbatical officers interviewed were unhappy about their role and achievements in the consultation process, bemoaning a lack of “wins”.
- Sabbatical officers have different understandings of how policy consultation should be organised and what the role of sabbatical officers in wider student activism is.
- The view that the NUS and individual students’ unions should promote student activism, was met with opposition from some participants. They desired a more ‘constructive’ approach Some interviewees wanted to lead and be part of wider student activism against reform and seemed to long for a political subjectivity from the past: that of a student activist.
- Some others, however, described the consultation as a constructive process, leading to valuable outcomes. They had settled with the positioning of sabbatical officers as rational negotiators and lobbyists.
Are we winning?
It’s easy to feel like that when your expectations of a win are set at the scale of cancelling the entire bill. Even something concrete, like the delay of a tuition fee increase or a pause in the implementation of a fee link to the teaching excellence framework, is not going to match up to that. Lobbying and small tweaks to legislation are a hard sell to those attracted to the student movement by the idea of grassroots led campaigns and a powerful series of occupations to make demands heard.
In some ways, this is a tale as old as time, the idealism of the young crushed by the cynicism and politics of the wonk. And it’s a painful one, as the chances are if you are reading this you probably are a wonk. But wonks are interested in actually getting stuff done – this doesn’t often look as exciting or as dynamic as a march or an occupation, but in terms of improving the lives of students it is better to achieve a little than to spend your energy achieving nothing at all.
This cuts to the heart of student politics – the battles between the moderates and the radicals, and the difference between a campaigning executive and the student on campus who just wants a cheaper pint. As fun as it might be to call out the moderates for capitulating to neo-liberalism by getting involved with lobbying and PR, and as delightful as it can be to call out radicals as idealistic dreamers with great ideas but no plan, any political or activist group that actually achieves worthwhile stuff probably needs a bit of both.