A Tale of Two Events

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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.

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3rd Year, BSc Politics and International Relations
President, Southampton University Politics Association (SUPA)

Discussion13 Comments

  1. avatar

    The NUS march could say a lot about political involvement; in 2003 when fees were trebled from £1000 to £3000, 30,000 people went to march. This time in 2010, they’re only expecting 10,000 people…

    Pete
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    so much for the expectations eh?

    Sasha Watson
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    Indeed! A good for it!

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    If democracy changed anything, it would be banned. People talk as if the Browne review won’t be implemented, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it, and there was nothing the previous university students could do when they were being raised last time. Our government doesn’t seem to respond to popular pressure- look at the invasion of Iraq.

    Why fight battles you wont win?

    Chris Houghton
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    It’s an interesting question for any union – whether it is right/helpful/productive to fight battles that can’t be won. Apart from the fees protests, the arms company protest springs to mind.

    The University were never in a million years going to say no to the arms companies wanting to recruit graduates.

    Sasha Watson
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    The way I see it is fundamentally youre right – we cant change the proposal now. However, what we can change is the Government position to students. Everyone is receiving cuts, from Defence to Healthcare, Education etc. Im sure there is a sense of priority in how quickly the funds are replenished in these sectors, done on a case of need, so by campaigning now, we could be giving Education a better shot of being better treated more fairly later on. Everyones belly-aching from the cuts, its just a case of shouting loudest so that were in the front of the line when things are readdressed.

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    It’s a touch ridiculous not to suggest that attendance at the fees rally is any kind of indicator of student involvment with Issues. Not only do the fee increases not affect those who are currently students, but you also wholly discount the idea that some students may even be in favour of the rise.

    In fact, personally I think it’s downright disgusting that SUSU campaigns on behalf of issues like this where the student body is neither homogenously in agreement, nor consulted in any way. I intendto withdraw from the student union, personally.

    Sasha Watson
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    How can you say students were not consulted in any way? Rob Stanning was elected in his manifesto to fight fees (7000 voters, then 3000 in the by-election), it was then made constitutional policy at the AGM to fight them, and then a few weeks ago, Rob did an open survey of students (1500 respondents so far) where 75% of people said they did not want to see an increase. Quite the mandate in my eyes!

    I take the point that rally numbers/ apathy is a generalisation, but then the circumstances were the same in 2004 and the numbers much higher. Also, as a generalisation, it follows the pattern of the VC event that this article talks about.

    Billy FitzJohn
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    Downright disgusting?

    Just to echo what Sasha states, Rob has been hard at work getting students to fill out our HE funding survey, and we have had nearly 2,000 responses from the student body, you only need to glance at the results to see what the majority of those students think.

    We have also been to halls of residence speaking to students about the current situation and asking if they would like to sign a petition against the savage cuts and potential rise in fees, and many have, we are waiting to collate the exact amount of signatures.

    As Sasha says, Rob was also elected in on the manifesto pledge that he would fight any rise in tuition fees

    SUSU also has official policy to oppose any rise in tuition fees, created at Union Council.

    So i’m unsure what you mean when you say we have not consulted the student body, i think all of those points Sasha has covered along with the things i have mentioned, do provide quite the mandate for SUSU to be joining this march on London.

    Instead of withdrawing your membership from the Students’ Union, why don’t you get involved, come to Union Council? Help create and define Union policy.

    Have you filled out the SUSU HE funding survey to express your opinion? Written to your local MP on what you think of the situation? Those are all things you could be doing to join the debate and have your views heard.

    Name
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    On Sasha’s points; Obviously it’s hard for me to cite concrete facts this far after the event. But I cannot remember any of the candidates for the VP academic affairs post not including “fighting tuition fees increases” as a campaign promise. Moreover, I cannot remember a stage where the tuition fees increases became a major distinguishing issue between candidates. Thus, to take Rob’s election as proof of a mandate on this issue is the worst kind of rhetorical trick.
    Besides which, from my experience of susu elections; they tend to be more of a popularity contest than a process which genuinely approximates substantive debate. Though I appreciate that your mileage may vary.
    I also like that the wording of your reply seems to indicate that the affirmation of top-up fees occurred at an AGM following Robs election. When it was in fact the AGM of the year before, at which current 1st and 2nd year students (such as myself) had no opportunity to vote.
    Of course, had it occurred at the most recent AGM it would also take a particularly bare faced liar to claim that this even came close to representing a democratic mandate, given the well publicised difficulties that that faced…
    The survey itself, while most definitely a step in the right direction, has also not been publicised in any meaningful way. I cannot believe that I am alone in not having heard of it before today. This is most likely reflected in the numbers shown, with only those who are bothered by the proposals taking the time to ferret it out. It also rather worries me that the only results from the survey which seem to be available anywhere are the four facts posted on Robs blog.
    I don’t seriously think you can even begin to claim a mandate on this issue for these reasons.
    Oh, and to your own canvassing efforts; well good show, but canvassing is as much about creating opinion as recording it. And one wonders if this really is the role we expect of a SUSU president.
    Moreover, the snotty tone of condescension implying that I have failed to involve myself in the process, while obnoxious in its own right is unwarranted in this case for 3 reasons;
    1) I am on the side of the government’s proposed actions. So it is hardly surprising that I am not me involved in the process. When, for example, was the last time you wrote to an mp suggesting that the death penalty not be reinstated?
    2) Student politics is inherently unrepresentative. Sabs run for a single year, seeking votes from an electorate that has no evidence of their suitability for the role, and facing no punishment from their constituency if they are unsatisfied, as they weren’t going to run again anyway.
    3) While it may be a CV boosting role for those with plans to enter politics, it has very little value to those who want to pursue careers in other areas. In fact, when compared to the counter factual of finishing a year earlier and getting actual work experience, it’s almost a black mark. This may seem like an ignoble position to take to you, but given my own circumstance as a mature student it is paramount to me.
    I also have to admit that I am turned off the idea of engaging with SUSU due to the cliquey and insular nature of the union council.

    Billy FitzJohn
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    Your entire response seems to me that you are more annoyed with the processes of the Union instead of the actual policy to oppose a hike in tuition fees..

    You say that every candidate had that on their manifesto, and yet you still spin that as a negative thing, doesn’t the fact that they all had that as a pledge say something? Again, you cannot make assumptions of the student body, where would we start with democracy if we did that? How would we achieve anything? If we made the assumption that “half of the people who voted in that election didn’t even know” then we would be no where and candidates would be able to give up on trying to deliver all sorts from their manifesto.

    In regards to the survey, like i said, we are by no means finished with the results and it is still open. If you have any suggestions for publicity then do vpcomms@susu.org know, but i can assure you though that a lot of effort has gone into trying to get people to fill it out. It is on the website, on Rob’s blog, we have sent out several e-mails to the large mailing lists we hold, the Sabbaticals have been doing lecture shout outs to encourage people to fill it out, we are trying.

    I was not being snotty when suggesting you get involved, we want more people engaging in the Union, you just said you had no idea about the HE funding survey; i’m simply suggesting to you other ways that you can make your voice heard on this current issue. No i have not written to my MP about the death penalty, but a current affairs like HE funding that we are currently experiencing? That is just being apathetic, you are voicing your opinion here that you are in favour of the Governments proposals and i am simply saying that opinion will count far more if you go through these kinds of channels.

    Again, your final comments are just besides the point of HE funding, you expressing discontent with the Union; and your comments on the reasons people run or work as a Sabbatical Officer are just not true. I work with an extremely dedicated team of people, full time and part time officers, and every single person wants to change things for the better. They are in their jobs because they care, they care about the Union and they want to engage in the future of it and help it become an even better place. We are here to help students, not ourselves, students are the reason our jobs exist in the first place. It takes a lot of courage to run in an election, and our elections are something to be proud of in Southampton, especially compared to the rest of the nation. You seem to be extremely apathetic about student politics and the Union and if we were all like that then i have no idea where we would be today. I have met and now know people very well who were first quite cynical about the Union and didn’t feel like they should get involved; now they are some of the most involved people i know! They voiced their opinion and they suggested ideas for the future and on how we can do things better, undergraduate or postgraduate, international or home student, we try our hardest to make people realise that they can make a difference in the Union, it is theirs after all!

    I have very little trust in the government now but i hope i will never be apathetic because once i have that mentality then any hope of making a difference is lost. With that mentality, i would have no chance of making a contribution or helping to change things for the better.

    Sasha Watson
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    To pick up one point:

    “The survey itself, while most definitely a step in the right direction, has also not been publicised in any meaningful way. I cannot believe that I am alone in not having heard of it before today. This is most likely reflected in the numbers shown, with only those who are bothered by the proposals taking the time to ferret it out”

    Check how many people are asked in opinion polls for Comres, Yougov and the like. 1000 max. You’re trying to discredit effort that goes above and beyond most norms, with much less resources available to them.

    Also – to question that students in years 2 and 3 now dont think the same as the AGM 2 years ago, come suggest a policy at Union Council – it will be heard, being a democracy and all – and I bet you will be shot down. And to say UC is cliquey – no its not, just having spent a lot of time and effort in working for the Union, we all know each other and are friends. Last week was my first UC, I wasnt shunned in anyway. How about trying to come along and see first hand?

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