With the looming cuts to higher education and seemingly inevitable subsequent increase in tuition fees, student activism should be reaching fever pitch. However, the recent Vice-Chancellor question time style event on the topic of the spending review and cuts was poorly attended, with no more then forty people in attendance. The questions asked of and answers given by Don Nutbeam, the VC, were serious and pertinent to the future of the university, yet the Cube was all but empty. Later that evening, a lively question and answer session with the recently re-elected UKIP leader Nigel Farage was held in a packed out lecture theatre. What does this disparity say about student apathy towards the running and future of the university?
Levels of student involvement in union politics have always been underwhelming. Last year’s sabbatical elections were applauded for seeing a turnout of 7156, the highest of any union in the country. Yet this isn’t even half of the total student population, voting for positions that are able to implement important and influential changes on the student experience. The impending cuts to higher education funding and subsequent significant hike in tuition fees seem an obvious issue to galvanise student activism and involvement and yet this was not borne out in the attendance at the event. The VC spoke on issues that could have huge impacts on the future of the University and its students, such as department closures and financial hardship aid, and yet only a tiny fraction of students were there to hear and quiz him. The Farage event, in comparison, was far less important to the future of the university and yet was far better attended.
One potential reasons for the disparity may be a lack of understanding of who the VC is and what his role is within the university administration, as opposed to the well publicised Sabb team. Farage, in turn, is well known for his attention-grabbing speeches, such as his infamous attack on European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, or his unsuccessful attempt to become MP for Buckingham and unseat Commons speaker John Bercow. It is noticeable that the posters advertising the Farage event did not even need to show a photo of him, yet many people would not recognise the VC if they bumped into him on campus.
Assuming this to be the case, there is a clear need for more effort to be put into raising awareness of eventsof such importance. The publicity for the VC event was far from comprehensive, despite the communication resources available to the union. Posters were few in number, largely confined to the concourse area and only appeared about a week before the event. The school email mailing lists were not made use of to reach as many people as possible. Furthermore following a technical glitch the Facebook event was duplicated numerous times, creating confusion as to the actual date and time of the event, as well as fostering some irritation at the number of invitations received.
But poor publicity cannot exclusively be to blame. The SUSU Facebook group has over 4000 fans that would have received the invitations, more then enough to fill the Cube to capacity. The posters equally were highly visible in the areas in which they were. The Farage event was able to greatly outperform the VC event with far more modest publicity; posters confined to the social science building and Facebook invites to fans of FreeSoc (the hosts).
Preparations are now being finalised for the demonstration in London against the higher education cuts in partnership with numerous other unions from around the country. The level of support for this amongst Southampton students will be a useful indicator for the degree of enthusiasm in the wider student body and the size of the task ahead. Encouragingly it seems likely at this point that the coach provision to London will sell out. The Vice-Chancellor stressed at the end of his questioning the need for student voices to be raised about the future direction of higher education, now more then ever. It remains to be seen if student disconnection from involvement in the union and running of the University can be successfully countered.