By Jake Roberts
As the annual students’ union elections loom on the horizon, Surrey students should be thinking carefully about what they want their Students’ Union (SU) to be. I talk here not about minor bureaucratic reforms, pertaining to specific rules surrounding course representatives or societies, for example. I am instead prompting questions surrounding our students’ union’s fundamental nature. Why should it exist? What should it do, on a fundamental level? We are lucky enough to be granted an institution on campus that has its own building, 19 permanent paid staff and five full-time sabbatical officers, and links to all 15,000 students at Surrey. This is a massive resource with huge potential for local change on Surrey’s campus, which could theoretically be used for any number of ends. It is thus vital that politically concerned students here should think seriously about how our Students’ Union should be wielding that power.
What an SU shouldn’t be
Unfortunately, Surrey’s sabbatical officers and Union staff past and present do not seem to have engaged in such big-picture thinking. Instead, for far too long, our Union has essentially functioned as an entertainment venue with some neglected democratic appendages attached as a footnote, when the reality should really be closer to the other way around. This is not to say that our SU should shut down Rubix or suddenly adopt some puritan stance towards clubbing and fun in general – absolutely not. But it is to say that student entertainment is not the fundamental reason for the Union’s existence – nightclubs exist across Guildford for students to go to, and students can throw their own parties and socialise as they wish, as they often do. Parties, fun, and entertainment, therefore, are not the Union’s unique raison d’être. Students in the UK did not occupy university buildings or organise sit-ins (as in Haringey in 1968, or Oxford in 1973) to have a nightclub built for them on campus.
But in fairness, most officers in Surrey’s Students’ Union would not argue that entertainment is the fundamental reason for the SU’s existence. Instead, the SU’s purpose is fundamentally to give its 15,000 members ‘representation’ or a ‘voice’, in order to improve ‘the student experience’. None of this sounds particularly problematic on the surface, and indeed I would argue that it is the Union’s primary job to be a body that represents Surrey students. What I take issue with, instead, is the particular conceptualisation of ‘representation’ that seems to plague much of the student movement in the UK today.
Let me use a concrete example from Surrey to explain myself here. In Surrey Decides’ ‘Question Time’ event earlier this year, chair Connor O’Hara made the remark during the VP Voice debate that the role of VP Voice was “looking after student opinion and taking it to higher levels”. To me, this offhand remark encapsulated the entire way apolitical sabbatical officers tend to think about students’ unions’ ‘representative’ role. They see students’ unions as merely another link in the chain, a feedback mechanism for university managers at “higher levels” who can then use the feedback to supposedly improve the ‘student experience’. Under this view of ‘representation’, students’ unions get reduced to a benign listening post; a voice on a committee that can easily be ignored or misappropriated. Not only that, but it also denies any political agency to the thousands of students existing outside the SU or university’s official structures, and locates the site of political struggle in a backroom committee meeting. It reinforces the idea of passive students-as-consumers, of a commodified university education which students ‘purchase’. Students’ unions do not truly ‘represent’ their members when they solely act like this – they rob them of their democratic rights and powers.
“The Union Makes Us Strong”: What should an SU be?
How should students’ unions exercise their ‘representative’ function, then? Unions in general – whether they be trade unions, students’ unions, or tenants’ unions – exist to organise and unite specific factions of the working class and other oppressed groups, and give them the means to fight back against the forces that exploit them and reproduce their subordination. Rogue landlords, under-paying bosses, and universities that charge extortionate tuition fees and rents in halls, are forces backed by significant capital and the coercive power of the state and the law. It is only through mass mobilisation and organisation that they can be successfully fought back against, and that is why unions exist. That is why the working class have fought, and often died, historically, for their right to unionise – because it is their way of fighting back against powerful vested interests, successfully. There is literally no point in unions, including students’ unions, therefore, if they do not engage in a collective fight. The clue is in the very name!
Consequently, students’ unions fail their members (and fail to represent them) when they do not organise collective action, or engage them in meaningful democratic practice. Representing students does not mean simply being a feedback mechanism – it means being an active and campaigning force on campus, that organises and mobilises its thousands of members as a collective force for progressive change. It is through this that students’ unions “represent our collective material interests”, as free education activist Luke Dukinfield has written.
Unfortunately, this sort of political leadership is something our union at Surrey has consistently shied away from. At a recent Executive Committee meeting in November, doubts were raised over a free education motion because it did not represent students who agreed with tuition fees – one sabbatical officer thus suggested that a survey be taken of current students to gauge the student body’s opinions before deciding any policy on free education. Other committee members seemed ambivalent or uninformed about the issue, an understandable (the turnover in student politics being extraordinarily fast) if disappointing sight to see. This denial of leadership, this refusal of any kind of responsibility for politically important and contentious issues, fails all those students who are marginalised and struggling at Surrey – the very people we should always be fighting for, and alongside with.
Instead, if our SU really wants to represent and engage students at Surrey, it should be taking bold collective action. Rises in rents and poor living conditions should be met with by rent strikes, as was recently done successfully by thirty students at the University of Sussex. Cuts to student support should be met with sustained campaigning and protest, as has recently been done at UCL. On a national level, marketising reforms to higher education should be met with a boycott of the very mechanisms by which it is marketised, as the national boycott of the National Student Survey by the NUS attempted to do last year. This collective action and protest gives us our material leverage which we can then use to win real, radical change when negotiating with University management.
A Radical Future for Surrey’s SU
This may sound idealistic or contrarian (“protesting for protest’s sake”), but it is said with a completely sober awareness of the challenge any collective action by our SU would face. Students are often politically apathetic at Surrey, with the University lacking the history of activism other major UK universities have. Surrey primarily delivers practical science and business courses, lacking hugely in the social sciences, humanities and to a lesser extent arts, disciplines more closely affiliated with political radicalism. The University’s location in Guildford also poses difficulties, tending to attract more affluent and privileged students from the south of the UK. All of this poses steep challenges to the success of any collective action that may arise on our campus, which student organisers must be aware of and prepared to face.
But this is not an immutable truth, a law of nature – it can be, and is being, changed. The past two years have seen a gradual upswing in political activity here, as students, slowly and latently becoming radicalised by both the assault on their education by the Conservatives and the success of Jeremy Corbyn in voicing an alternative, have become receptive to bolder political ideas and tactics on campus. Attendance at Executive Committee meetings has increased, and debates have become more contentious. A demonstration was held against Trump’s “Muslim ban” earlier this year in February. A ‘Cut the Rent’ group has been set up by myself and other comrades, seeking to organise a critical mass of students to withhold their rent in order to push the University of Surrey to cut the rent and build cheaper halls.
I have been involved with many of these campaigning endeavours in the past two years, and what has consistently struck me is the genuine appetite for more radical action when properly explained and presented. But it shouldn’t surprise me – Surrey may not have a history of activism, but that doesn’t mean its students here aren’t being exploited, aren’t facing discrimination, or aren’t struggling to make ends meet. Because they are: private rents in Guildford are extortionate, Surrey’s new student nurses now no longer receive a bursary, and the University has consistently over-recruited in the past few years, leading to overcrowded lecture theatres and overstretched student support services. All this material exploitation is creating a latent anger amongst the student body, and laying the foundation for future collective action that fights such exploitation. The task for our Students’ Union now is thus to build on this foundation of anger and exploitation, and organise it into campaigns, direct action, and protest.
Let’s put an end to vapid, disempowering notions of ‘voice’ and the ‘student experience’, and turn our Union into a radical campaigning force that genuinely fights and wins for its members in all the years to come. That is what our Union should be.
Jake Roberts is a final year Politics student at the University of Surrey. He writes here in a personal capacity, and not as Incite’s Head Editor.