Student democracy in 2015
As our 50th year draws to a close, Olly Rice, Democracy and Development Officer at Warwick SU reflects on the past 50 years of student democracy at Warwick.
"I’m Olly Rice, the current Democracy and Development Officer at Warwick SU. Democracy and Development is at face-value a bit of strange role: it means overseeing not just democracy, but SU outlets, events, and finances. Very few SUs have this role. Usually it’s left to administrative staff, but then very few SUs have as healthy a turnout and turnover as Warwick SU, one of the largest and most active SUs in the country.
Indeed Warwick SU doesn’t just have ‘democratic’ as a stale requisite necessitated under the 1994 Education Act, it actively strives to embody that and be truly accountable and representative to its students. This is reflected in a democratic structure that has been revised significantly over the years and decades. Indeed, this year we’ve curtailed the talk-shop that was Student Council and now elect students to eight new, action-orientated SU Execs. Where other SUs can get stuck in bad institutional structures that place barriers to student engagement and barriers to its own change, ours is a living, breathing and dynamic democracy. We genuinely try to empower our students to propose, organise, and carry out the events, campaigns, support and advice they want rather than just administrative staff who can and do provide excellent support to facilitate this.
The Sabbatical Officer roles themselves have also changed over the years with the first Sabbatical positions only being created and funded in the mid-70s, over a decade after the University was created. The SU back them was much smaller, and its increase in size, space, staff and representation has been hard won along the way. Indeed some things never change with student protest occupations on campus in recent years against tuition fees being the same tactics used successfully in gaining the SU its first building in the 70s.
Back then though; democracy was a lot more direct and communal than now. A smaller University, student assemblies on core topics of the day (including on controversial University decisions such as revealed student admission decisions by the then Vice Chancellor, Jack Butterworth) could gather around half the total student population to actively listen and discuss the issues. Now we facilitate All Student Meetings on our policy discussions, however our voting is online, but then so is many of our students’ private conversations, which often happen over social media. Democracy has changed to reflect this and will continue to do so. This improves its accessibility and in fact in absolute numbers empowers more students than ever before.
This doesn’t just include Sabbatical Officer elections, part-time officer elections and other direct SU Representatives. It’s easy to forget that every SU society and club is democratic too, as are the 700+ Student-Staff Liaison Committees students elect Couse Reps. These are the bread and butter of academic dialogue and student experience on campus in which democracy is at its core.
However, over the years Higher Education across the UK has become increasingly marketised. Rather than proving a benign force, it subtly but strongly changes the way students interact with and value their University environment. This is pervasive with markedly increased quantitative pressures from living costs, accommodation costs, degree classification, and competition for academic time and resources as well your final grade. This heightens the place of individualistic and materialistic values in society, values that are juxtaposed to the values of altruism and community embodied by democracy. Democracy, in short, wasn’t designed to give the individual and direct benefits students are being conditioned to expect.
This is interesting when you’re the Democracy and Development Officer, which necessitates interacting with students as consumers in our outlets, and as voters in our elections – two identities that are not easily conflated, no matter what the Economics Department tells you!
So when it comes to how democracy will change in the next 50 years, it can often seem like a small fish swimming furiously against a torrential river in order to increase participation. Despite this bigger picture, what we might in fact be seeing is that most students do still take part in democracy, but the democracy they perceive to be the most relevant to them – whether in their societies or on their course - and that’s no bad thing.
It takes a strong SU to keep not only turnout healthy, but a good quality of student participation. In the next few years it’s imperative that we work towards restabilising the links between democracy and its perceived relevance to the increasingly pressurised student. In reality though, Warwick is that strong SU. With a large number of student societies, strong levels of accountability, a good working relationship with the University, and elected Officers working day in and day out to improve the student experience and act on policy passed by our students, Warwick SU is more relevant to its students than ever before.
The next 50 years need to build on this solid foundation in the fast moving river of Higher Education."