Anyone who has the misfortune to live around or near a university will have seen painted bedsheets sprawled across their streets, dangling from their lamp posts, tied messily to gates, and most likely, stapled to trees. It’s election time at universities across the UK, where students promise things that can’t be achieved, and on a general basis, display their incompetences in economics on a scale so wide, it provides perfect evidence that our education system fails our young people.
Naturally, manifestos commit to “halt the increasing privatisation and commercialisation of our education”, pledging some kind of anti-cuts stance (including “free education and living grants” – yes, some students actually think their entire education should come at no cost to themselves despite the obvious personal benefits accrued) and a commitment to “tackling the immoral decisions of this Tory-led Government”.
Now, that Union officers pledge to these things is, in itself, interesting. The general attitude that accompanies these claims is that we should tax the rich and businesses much more, in order to pay for the increased education costs. They try to pass education off as a right. But, I ask this – what makes these student politicians so sure that students are deserving of these costs being taken on by others on their behalf? What makes the elderly no better a recipient? Why are university-students being given the money – surely, students intelligent enough to gain university admission are better equipped to deal with their future, whereas those for whom university is not possible need the most assistance? Surely, is it not the case, that I can deal with the extra debt accumulated from my degree because my earnings are likely to be greater and, indeed, the government needs to ensure (if they need to ensure anything at all – I’m taking a pragmatic, non-libertarian position) that these individuals can find other developmental opportunities (such as internships, apprenticeships) more than they have an obligation to fund our education? Lefty student types argue that if we increased taxes on the rich, we could pay for education in all its forms – primary, secondary, further, higher, apprenticeships, living wage internships and so on. Do they understand the impact of increased taxation on the different segments of the economy? Do they realise that in an era of globalisation, where companies can quite literally up sticks, or just never start here in the first place, the best thing we can do to ensure a decent future for our next generation is to make sure there’s businesses here, offering jobs? That, perhaps, insulting, degrading and vilifying those very individuals who bring wealth and prosperity to this country for us all to have part of, and contribute to ourselves, thereby setting up a bigger pie for our descendants, is not the most helpful way to approach this?
Putting aside what I (and I know I’m not alone) consider to be pretty monstrous policies, the value of student politics is to be questioned. For example, UCL Union are currently sitting on at least £1 million. What are they doing with that money? Well, despite already having a total of six sabbatical (paid) officers, compared with say, LSE, who have four, they decided to increase their ranks to ten. York Student Union have five full-time, sabbatical officers. Meanwhile, UCL students pay extortionate prices for rent to live in the city they do – could they not perhaps dedicate the extra £100,000 spent on the salaries of those four new sabbatical positions to create, say, 50 new hardship funds for those students who really need help covering their costs? Would the benefit of giving £2,000 to 50 students not far outweigh the “loss” of four great minds? If Unions exists to enhance and protect student welfare, then is this not the most obvious move?
The questionable financial arrangements aside, Student Unions have started wading in on all sorts of issues, issuing pro-Palestinian dictates, taking stances on key political issues, but that have no impact on students. Students are told that their Union is opposed to global injustice; do we want a Union that spends time and effort worrying about a course of events we can’t affect from a policy decision, and using its resources given to it for the purpose of helping students to make political statements and further the officers’ own personal ideologies? Find a normal, sane, student who thinks that a Union’s job is to wade into such complex matters and issue edicts on the matter. Just try. Needless to say, these policies don’t make any difference to anybody on campus, except serving to alienate segments of its population. After all, if a policy on X doesn’t change X, but actively makes students feel unrepresented or marginalised by the very charity set up to protect their interests, what good can this charity and this policy do? The answer, is none.
The fact that the Union concerns itself with matters it has no right to extends beyond simply political stances. Unions across the country have tried to ban The Sun, bottled water etc. Rather than trust their students to make decisions about purchases for themselves, the Union mandates for or against something, irrespective of the wishes of the student body. Now, with regards to purchases, it’s quite easy to see that a student that doesn’t approve of the Sun won’t buy it, and a student that doesn’t think the Sun does anything wrong with its page 3 women, simultaneously may buy it (if the student enjoys the newspaper) or won’t (because the student has no interest in reading it). The natural demand-side inclination then, is not to buy the Sun. Why must the Union then legislate for this? Why does the Union feel the need to “do something” about everything its officers have a view on? Officers need to be reminded what they exist to do – to protect the welfare of the student body – and not to push their personal views on students. This includes Unions (*cough*) that mandate that officers must push membership of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts – if a student wants to join, let them, but using the mailing list that the Union has for all students (despite them not having given their express permission to have our email addresses in the first place) to push a set of views is shamelessly unethical. This includes Unions composed of left-wing female officers who consider it appropriate to take offence on behalf of women everywhere at the voluntary decision of some women to bare their breasts.
Student politics is ugly because the Unions don’t trust the student body to make decisions for themselves, assuming that they will either make the wrong decision for their own interests, or fail to do “the right thing”. It’s pointless, because it’s become more about political point scoring and pushing agendas removed from the interests of students and more in-tune with the interests of its elite, left-wing cohort, and it’s divisive, because it enacts policy that serves no purpose except to prohibit people of certain views being represented by the Union, or actively choosing to pass policy that suggests a certain country (to which many in the student body belong) is guilty of atrocious crimes, without a balanced insight being presented and without any indication that it will bring about any positive consequences. The people of Gaza may well deserve support, but the Union does not speak for all students when it offers it in our names. If Unions can’t rediscover their purpose, if it’s truly lost to us all, then I for one, fail to see why they continue to take money from our universities to fund their fun, CV-building, ideology-pushing year out.