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By Nathan Akehurst
For many of us, OUSU can all too easily seem nothing short of a passing irrelevance, easily ignored throughout most of our university careers- something corroborated by the survey last year revealing that we possessed the UK’s second least popular student union. For we have common rooms to represent us, right? The OUSU hack seems little better than the Union official, someone who appears from a dull hibernation in the bureaucratic bowels of Oxford life to spring up in front of you with a leaflet and an effusive smile, encouraging you to vote for them or their friend every November. This reading of the situation is in part brought about by the removed nature of the student union from our lives, the lack of accessibility to vote on OUSU policy outside of the election period, the sheer time commitments of the degree (well, maybe not Earth Sciences), and the role of common rooms. So on reading the news that OUSU’s already pitifully-small block grant faces a real-terms cut this year, you could be forgiven for turning the page at this point. To do so would be a mistake.
It is worth remembering that the University have spent hundreds of years attempting to weaken the power of student organization by blocking the creation of a central representative organ. It refused to recognise OUSU’s forerunner, the OUSRC, until the early 1970s. The fight for a student union building involved a seven-day occupation of the Exam Schools. Then-Vice Chancellor John Habbakuk responded that it was a period of deep cuts and there was no intention of funding student organisation. OUSU itself, as bureaucracies are often wont to do, capitulated and passed a motion refusing to support further occupations. An occupation of the Indian Institute went ahead anyway, and a couple of days later was savagely attacked by fifty people, one of whom was a confirmed off-duty police officer and the rest who have been alleged to be police or Proctors out of uniform in a long-running dispute. Eighteen occupiers were ordered before the head Proctor. This is what students went through to get a student union, and a legacy that must be upheld today in spite of whatever faults OUSU may have. It funds The Oxford Student, Oxide Radio, the autonomous campaigns for gender, LGBTQ, disabled and racial equality, represents us to the university over central issues such as library opening hours, won students the right to retake Prelims, and organised twelve buses to the national demonstration against tuition fees in November 2010. In short, it is capable of the campaigns and projects that a common room is not.
Yet the £400,000 block grant our student union receives from the University stands in stark contrast to the £1.8million received annually by the average Russell Group student union. Even when common room funding is taken into account (which I am hesistant to do so given the nature of economies of scale and the inequalities in college funding) the figure comes to £1.1million- still £700,000 below the average, despite the fact that we are one of the country’s richest universities. This amounts to £19 per student (or £51 per student taking common rooms into account), compared to a Russell Group average of £83 per student. This is not to mention a series of tight regulations on how OUSU can and cannot raise funds. Now, the vice-chancellor expects us to accept a real-terms cut this year, despite the fact that the entire block grant is roughly equivalent to his personal salary. Strong representation is something students have fought long and hard for, and we deserve a union financially capable of fulfilling its election promises and being relevant. When incoming students are paying £9000 per year in tuition fees, the least they can expect is to be properly funding a body capable of campaigning on their behalf.
Thus at OUSU Council this week a motion unanimously passed to lobby the university against the cut. It is something that we cannot leave to sabbatical officers and regular attendees of Council alone, but a campaign that should if necessary be generalised across the entire student body. The funding cut takes place against a bleak picture in higher education- staff cuts, creeping privatisation, tripled fees, and a rapidly-rising cost of living that is hitting students harder every year. In the context of the nationwide threats academia faces, it is now more than ever that we need a student union willing, but also financially enabled to fight for our interests. When OUSU speaks, it speaks on behalf of a twenty-two thousand strong undergraduate and graduate body. Therefore it should not be ignored but held to account, and when its already outrageously-limited budget is slashed, we should take a stand collectively to defend it.