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By Sam Richardson
It’s been a busy year for OUSU. The Browne review stimulated student activism not seen for a generation, and Oxford has been at the forefront of the struggle: a historic no-confidence motion in the universities minister passed by the Congregation with a stunning 283 votes to five. Why then do OUSU remain one of the most ignored, criticised and even ridiculed institutions in the university?
To investigate whether we even need a student union I went straight to the horse’s mouth; the Sabbatical Candidates’ Handbook, available on the OUSU website. From a list of various injustices and inequalities affecting students I picked three to examine. For those of you quaking in fear at the prospect of exams, the handbook complains; ‘Colleges can chuck out students for their prelims results, even if students in other colleges, with identical results, will be supported and thrive’. Why indeed should Oxford’s famous academic rigour be allowed to ruin the lives of its students? Second on the list; ‘Dodgy landlords take particular advantage of students’, a sad situation that many of us will experience. Lastly, the handbook complains ‘Students aren’t automatically consulted on issues that affect their lives’. On this point I completely agree. But at present OUSU is as guilty of that sin as anyone.
Back in Michaelmas last year OUSU was rocked by a spate of attempted JCR motions declaring no confidence in its handling of the Browne Review. Some, such as those at Christ Church and Magdalen gave the impression many students supported the proposals, in direct contrast to OUSU’s clear condemnation of the review. It was a total mess, with a disastrous lack of communication between the university and collegiate bodies. OUSU President David Barclay replied in the only way possible, reminding students that OUSU council, to which we are all invited, had agreed on the motion. What OUSU council? Most students have barely heard of it. It comes across as more of an OUSU committee meeting, not helped by the fact its meetings are seldom publicised. When visiting the OUSU website at the time of writing, I was invited to an important council meeting – on the 13th October 2010.
That’s not the only way OUSU has distanced itself from students. The newly relocated OUSU offices (precious few are aware they even moved) seem permanently locked. Far from being welcoming, it’s enough to discourage the most enthusiastic student. Even worse, the OUSU website is a disgrace to the university. It seems to have been hastily designed back in the nineties, and is confusing, infuriating and rarely updated. It is eclipsed by all manner of clubs and societies who could only dream of the paid staff and office space OUSU enjoys. This is not to mention the elections. These become almost as irritating as those of the Union, with the good intentions of the candidates obscured by the hundreds of horrible orange posters which deface the town. No wonder the turnout was only 14% despite a convenient internet-based voting system. OUSU risk making the jump from apathy to downright unpopularity.
With so little involvement, it’s no wonder the views of our elected representatives seem so different to ours. One widely held belief is that OUSU have become increasingly dominated by the concerns of minority groups, to the detriment of the vast majority. The recent, ridiculous, debate about cross-gender bops had very serious consequences; most Oxford students, and even members of the LGBTQ community, could not understand the reasoning behind the motion. The danger behind such ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ decisions is that they risk portraying the LGBTQ community as kill-joys, and present them and OUSU as against, rather then part of, the larger Oxford student community. Campaigns for women’s equality, representation for international students and a respect for diversity, are admirable and indeed essential for any student union. But they will have no impact unless the ‘silent majority’ is behind them.
Of course, when the current crop of OUSU officers leave office, there’s only one subject commentators will be discussing; the student fees debate. After a slow start they leapt into action, putting their heart and soul into the student fight-back against the government’s plans. Oxford emerged as a centre of progressive student activism, with marches around the Radcliffe Camera receiving worldwide coverage, and Lord Browne himself losing the nerve to visit the city. The protesters have helped roll back centuries of negative stereotypes which have blighted this great institution. For this they deserve our gratitude. Nevertheless, when the dust settles, OUSU will suffer for having neglected the home front.
Perhaps they were fuelled by memories of the infamous sit-in protest at the Indian Institute (now the History Faculty Library) back in 1974, which resulted in one year suspended sentences for those involved, and came to see themselves as the freedom fighters of today. Maybe they were unwilling to step back into the monotonous world of negotiation, investigation and consultation which characterises the day-to-day realties of student politics. But if they want to regain the trust of students that’s exactly where they need to go.
What I’m talking about is policies such as the rent-freeze campaign, or the Target-Schools initiative, though these are maybe too little, too late. What are they going to do about the spiralling costs of Oxford living? And in this time of austerity, surely OUSU should press colleges to reduce pointless expenditure on ‘hospitality’? In a perfect world, OUSU should be our bulwark against the Universities’ almost insatiable desire to make money and increase its reputation at any cost. They should take inspiration from past achievements. With regard to Prelims, OUSU gained the right to re-sits, and with rent, organised an accommodation workshop advising students on how to deal with exploitive landlords. This workshop needs to be re-run, and the campaign for academic equality across colleges re-invigorated. The recent move to funding from the university, as opposed to affiliated colleges is a good move in facilitating reform. If students can see OUSU helping with such practical and relevant difficulties apathy will decrease, and OUSU will find its mission to reflect student views far easier to achieve.
The future must involve OUSU; small, unconnected and inherently short-sighted JCR’s cannot fulfil the role of a university wide body. If that were the case, then Oxford would be represented to the media by its most famous colleges, such as Christ Church, or its most vocal, such as Wadham. Obviously this would be an unhealthy situation. OUSU has the talent, funding and potential to succeed. It’s their methods, motivations, and perceived purpose that worry me. Let’s hope the long vacation gives them a chance to rethink their priorities.