The question of what SUSU is and its basic role in university life will not be unfamiliar to those of us who have taken at least a minor interest in its affairs over the last few years. Is it first and foremost a body representing students’ rights to the university? Or, located at the heart of Highfield campus, is it nevertheless an escape from the academic world, a hub for societies, student media, and sports clubs? Is it, perhaps, a nodal point unifying far-flung campuses, from Winchester to the NOC to Malaysia? Or is it simply an informal social space, where students (and alumni) may meet to discuss what they please?
SUSU can no longer claim to be any of these things. Each of the above definitions still takes for granted, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of a coherent student body, a ‘union’ of students—but this is, sadly, anachronistic. Any consideration of SUSU’s role must take into account the basic redefinition, mainly in the last decade, of what it means to be a student, and how that complicates any such union. To put it another way, we need to interrogate the relationship between this students’ union and the form of capitalism that has penetrated to the heart of the university.
It is now commonplace to hear that students have become consumers. Frequently we think—even, are solicited to think—about our degrees in terms of value for money, as a kind of profit-loss account (have we made back our £9000 this year?). The university has become an investment (and therefore a risk), even though its primary stakeholders are also its consumers. None of this should be controversial; it is simply a matter of what one thinks about rampant privatisation. But, leaving aside that debate for the moment, it is undeniable that students must now choose their place of study with a host of financial questions in mind. What’s the cost? What’s the prospect of long-term return? Will it look prestigious on my CV?
SUSU exists uncomfortably as both a part of the university (the university owns the union building, for instance) and as a force to check the university. But it is no more able to resist the relentless advance of capital. If the relationship of student to university has undergone a vital mutation, so too must the relationship between the student and its union. Our previous ideas of the union are anachronistic in an age in which those it represents have become simultaneously consumers and investors. Indeed, independent of its intentions, and for better or for worse, one of SUSU’s prime functions is now to be a consumer rights organisation.
None of the above is, I think, controversial, and one might take varying stances on the expansion of capitalism into new and uncharted zones. Nevertheless, this leads me to the main point I’d like to make. For if SUSU is meant to represent a consumer interest, this is in tension with another of its overt roles, that of being a corporate organisation in its own right. Such is the paradox: the union now represents the rights of the consumer of the university at the same time as it increasingly makes these representees its own consumers.
Let me immediately anticipate a counterargument: membership to SUSU is free; with membership, a student can take part in all kinds of democratic processes within SUSU; these give him or her effective representation. On this view, SUSU still exists in one of those rare spaces that capitalism has not yet colonised. My response here is that, though in principle this contention seems to hold, it is nevertheless a Utopian view, one that overlooks the concrete operations of SUSU in its modern context.
Take, for instance, the use of space within SUSU. No doubt the union building has become a more corporatised zone: one need only pay attention to the increasingly careful manipulation of the environment within its outlets. For instance, it is easy to note that the Bridge is stylised, at different times of the day, for different types of purchasing, and accordingly for different kinds of activity. During the afternoon, the music is quieter and allows students to work while drinking coffee or eating something off the menu. At night, after the kitchen has closed, the music is usually louder, the lights dimmer, and it becomes a difficult place to work in.
This is not to levy the somewhat naive charge of consumerism at SUSU; neither is it to say that SUSU should become a second library, a place dedicated to work. I am simply suggesting that commercial outlets are exercising more power over what can and cannot happen in union spaces. To give an even clearer example: no longer are you allowed to buy food from the café and eat it (mere meters away) on Bar 3 at lunchtime. If you do so, a member of staff will approach you and ask you to leave. There is a clear demarcation between the two corporate zones, each of which has a specific atmosphere associated with it (the café with its stripped-down, basic feel, the bar with its incommensurable American diner aesthetic). The result is that, in certain cases, you have to pay to sit in specific parts of the union; it is no longer, in principle, a free space.
My third example—which the Wessex Scene has already reported—is the conflict between Surge Radio’s 48-hour marathon and the ‘American Freshman’ bus. Both parties had booked the red-brick area outside the union (a minor, forgivable administrative mistake), but when pressed to choose between the two options, the union gave precedence to the party bus. The union’s defence was, in part, that it made no money from the scheme—but this is irrelevant. What is decisive is again who controlled space on campus, who managed its environment, and thus who could determine what activities would be possible there.
To reiterate: my point is not that this should surprise us, though I think these developments are at least regrettable. My point is rather that a kind of informal (and sometimes formal) policing of space, and especially of the ways we might use that space, in SUSU is in contradiction with its purportedly ‘democratic’, inclusive, representative function. We can trace these changes back to the penetration of capital into the university, now into the heart of the union itself.