What if SU elections are a huge waste of time?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

As a cold, dark January comes to a close, and afternoons start slowly to look a little lighter, it’s usually SU elections season that cheers me up.

I’ve always loved elections. The costumes, the slogans, the banners and the bedsheets bring any campus to life – and there’s nothing like a close count under the single transferable vote to fire up the ultra nerd in me.

More importantly, the emergence of a new group of student leaders – with their own agenda, ideas, energy and opinions – is what causes our sector to be so creative and exciting to work in.

But there’s a problem. I’m becoming increasingly worried that they don’t really achieve much in and of themselves, don’t actually improve things for students, don’t engender real democratic participation, and actively harm many of their participants.

What if they’re a huge waste of time?

Maturity before decline

In students’ unions in the UK, over the years we have evolved and refined a democratic system where the principal way in which students resolve their competing interests is not through debate, discussion, or participation – but through elections.

Picking people to blame.

This term – and a considerable amount of attention, budget and staff time – will be dominated by those elections – which structurally assume a single student community choosing its leaders, when all but the smallest HEIs are now clusters of multiple student communities.

Thanks to board-level KPIs to demonstrate legitimacy, in those elections, “success” has come to mean a high voter turnout. To get it, we tend to need a high number of candidates vying for positions, or we bribe people and pretend they’ve read a manifesto.

We know that the mass six-pack celebrity contest is a system that guarantees that a large number of people – often very talented – will be put off from standing. And it also means that a significant number of talented people will “lose” the election, and guarantees that the policy content of those elections is necessarily thin.

To make it easier to stand and win, some SUs are banning campaigning and shortening the length of the campaigning and voting period. But in doing so we reduce the chances for the electorate to use the process to debate their own interests and future.

To reduce the disproportionate influence of some sub communities, many SUs ban slates. But the result is that we discourage alliances and association – key facets of a democratic society – and we end up focussed on the cult of single point of failure individuals rather than the ideas or opinions they bring.

To correct for the lack of prior experience, many SUs spend most of the summer training and supporting their new student leaders. But tacitly in doing so we accept that they often have no prior experience – when investment in structures and positions that aren’t the sabb team would enable them to hit the ground running.

We have come, for some reason, to fetishise student leaders being inexperienced and having their own ideas for projects or campaigns – where across Europe we’ve seen much more experienced student leaders take the top jobs who are more vocal about what needs to change in their university, and more concerned with coordinating others than delivering themselves.

In some cases, to ensure that candidates don’t over-promise, some SUs are even removing manifestos altogether. In the paradigm we’re in, I understand why – but once you’re there, you may as well remove the voting part too.

And our system also means that the majority of the electorate that do vote won’t end up with winners that they voted for as first choice.

The awesome power of democracy is when you realise – and then reconcile – that not everyone agrees with you. It’s the ultimate form of bridging social capital. Are we sure that our flagship democratic investment every year even gets near achieving it?

Whenever you get a mature product, tinkering to make the best of it through promotion, training, revising roles runs its course. It’s why I sense that when it comes to elections, we need quite radical reform.

Towards a more democratic future

The first big questions should concern how we find, nurture and unlock student leadership talent more widely across larger student bodies.

Next, in large and diverse universities, we should consider how to make student interest work feel closer to students and their subject areas.

We ought to ask ourselves how we might cause there to be more democratic conversations across campus, and how more students might be involved in critiquing university policy, or influencing decisions in their locality.

And crucially, if we want students to participate, serve, advocate and innovate for each other – with all the participative benefits that brings – we need shifts away from Broadway Musicals and towards school plays.

It requires, fundamentally, a facilitation rather than professional expertise mindset from SU staff – and in an age when students have less time and money, a commitment not to do things for students, but to make what more student leaders work on more manageable.

When, in Koln on our study tour, a student leader told me about his project that helped international students find emergency accommodation this year, I was interested in all the other projects he’d run. It took me longer than it should have to realise that there were lots of him, that that was his only project, and he’d nailed it – co-produced, and peer delivered.

Change means identifying the communities, departments, projects and endeavours that can each be led and delivered by students – rather than assuming their principal input is to be into a charity board where the resultant winners will make up a third of members.

The way we choose student leaders isn’t just about what works best for the organisation or for the university. It’s about SUs’ role as educational charities – the sort of society we want to build, and a better vision for the student experience.

Once we’ve done all of that, maybe we’ll still end up with six sabbs, elected by cross campus ballot each March on a single community model. But we might not. And if in the process we’ve found ways to rebuild and embed a sense of community and democracy across campuses, it probably won’t matter.

2 responses to “What if SU elections are a huge waste of time?

  1. I share many of your concerns around what our Elections achieve Jim, and I am one of those people that is currently ‘tinkering’ with what we have to try and make something that meaningfully contributes to the student experience.

    The stumbling block is really those couple of lines in EA94 about how SUs should be run (which, as you note, seem more compatible with a homogenous university experience that no longer exists for most students) – how do we get around that?

    And how do we get our institutions, to which the EA applies, to agree to those changes?

  2. Depends what changes you’re trying to make. For example if you’re keen that a sabb is elected by and from a faculty, there’s an way around that doesn’t automatically have every student able to vote for every position. So as I say – depends!

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