This week saw the culmination of the EUSA by-elections, an annual event that allows students to stand and represent their peers on a number of different platforms and reasons. Perhaps unsurprisingly however, voter turnout for the event was embarrassingly low, with fewer than 900 students taking part in arguably one of EUSA’s most important procedures.
Just as with every EUSA election, questions have been asked as to why voter turnout has consistently remained poor; indeed, the idea that these elected positions are obsolete is an argument frequenlty adopted by the union’s critics. For them, EUSA is seen to be irrelevant, weak and simply in place to offer students an ostensible sense of autonomy and power at this University. However, these criticisms are misplaced.
Through no fault of their own, they, along with the majority of the study body, see EUSA from a top-down perspective; as an organisation that should be dramatically intervening in the conduct of societies and consistently producing faultless schemes that tackle any problem facing students at the University of Edinburgh. Instead, EUSA should be viewed from a bottom-up perspective.
Autonomy is something that is easily forgotten and often taken for granted. A common misconception has arisen that views student engagement with EUSA as limited and rather low. This misconception, clouded by the top-down view of the student union, plainly ignores the fact that there are around 25,000 members involved with the hundreds of societies present across campus and take part in a variety of different – sometimes wonderfully bizarre – extra-curricular activities. Students are given autonomy to act on their own merit, and have creative control firmly placed in their own hands.
Despite low voter turnout in EUSA’s elections, thousands of students do take part in the student union’s smaller, and more locally situated democratic processes, mostly through voting in Annual General Meetings (AGMs) and electing candidates to a committee for their own societies and groups. It is easy to divorce the work of societies from that of EUSA, however, the two are intrinsically linked and undoubtedly support each other during all periods of the year. Although student engagement with EUSA is immensely limited on the macro-level, when societies are examined, it is clear the micro-level involvement is actually extremely high.
The majority of criticism aimed at EUSA largely derives from this top-down perspective of the students’ union. However, this perspective is inherently flawed. There is only so much that can be achieved when sabbatical officers only work for one year, when the student body is 30,000 strong, and when the majority of students will be leaving Edinburgh after 4 years. Although assistance from sabbatical officers can help, general change within students’ unions is affected from the bottom-up.
Of course, there are a number of problems that must be overcome. There are time lags that many face when dealing with EUSA; there can be conflict over which societies, if any, are prioritised over others; and there are problems over how its commercial activities are communicated to students. Moreover, there has, over the years, been a failure on behalf of the organisation to successfully communicate how students can get more involved with the wider democratic processes. All these issues boil down to misunderstandings and miscommunication.
Arguably, the heaviest criticism concerns the conduct and practice of the monthly student council meetings, which many rightly criticise as being dominated by political clique – this is, and has been for many years, an issue which leads people to feel that their union is not inclusive, despite the contrary being the case. Seen by many as irrelevant, the process is simply too formal; if a student wishes to file a motion for discussion, they must first figure out how to write a formal motion – a task that is easier said than done. This simply has the effect of narrowing down topics of discussion, and ensures that the only people presenting motions are those who feel most aggrieved.
It is not that politically active students should be discouraged from attending these councils – university campuses are a fantastic platform for engaging young people in politics. However, with only the most politically engaged students attending, students who simply wish to raise less dramatic, albeit important, points of discussion, and those who want to posit questions, but may not have solutions manifested in a very formal motion, are deterred. Clearly then, a far more informal structure must be adopted. Whether that involves a forum rather than council style of operation, or the incorporation of online voting, is a decision that both EUSA and the student populace must make.
Ultimately, engagement with EUSA’s wider democractic procsses is laughably small. However, it is not apathy that plagues students amongst EUSA; rather, it the fact that such wider engagement leads students to organise more locally amongst each other rather than bothering with the larger organisation apparatus of the union. EUSA needs to do a better job with communication, but it is certainly not the case that the majority of us are beholden to a few political activists who dominate student council meetings.