I think, finally, it’s safe to cross the concourse again. The frighteningly extrovert pressgangs who are aloud to cover the union in litter and graffiti once a year have finally fucked off out of my walking direction. Despite the personal space invasions, showering of flyers and awful campaign slogans screamed at anything that moves, I did not vote. I’ll tell you why.
In sixth form I used to think student democracy was a great thing. We had a Head Girl and Boy, chosen by the teachers to be the student puppet arm of the “senior leadership team”, readily available when they needed to empress some parents with some polished, complimentary public speaking. But we also had the student council. Students with behavioral ‘issues’ were encouraged to get involved and channel their frustrations in a productive and democratic way. I ended up representing my year. We had great fun visiting different forms at registration time, fining out what was affecting the year and then chasing worthy causes up in whatever way we could find. We won girls the right to wear trousers and helped redesign the canteen menu after that Essex tart Jamie Oliver deprived us of turkey twizzles. It was a direct, grass root driven, democratic system. However my interest in student politics has turned to disgust since coming to Sheffield.
Firstly however, I must praise the Union for some valiant, if not hypocritical recent actions. For publicly standing against the ‘forward thinking’ cretins currently trying to turn our universities into a business. Forge press hasbeen vocal and dogged in opposing the proposed Spinout Company that will work in conjunction with university, allowing them to undermine their own code of employment by slashing the wages and pensions of the lowest paid employees of the University. A format that is increasingly commonplace within the sector. And for lending their support to the students of Sussex University currently fighting to halt the privatization of their University. But it’s now time the union turned its critical eye upon itself.
When I walk into our glittering steel and glass Union, under the deafening air conditioning and blinding spotlights, I can’t help but think this place doesn’t feel genuine. Between dodging the enthusiastic campaigners, you must first navigate around a ginormous Cadburys stall trying to sell us all sorts of artery clogging filth we don’t need, only to then be confronted by a grinning IT sales man trying to sell me some extortionate new windows software I definitely can’t afford. Then there’s trinket shop selling the sort of junk that I’ve only ever bough in an airport. And further round the corner lies Santander, a posh café and an overpriced food quarter. It’s a selection of retailers that wouldn’t look out of place in Covent Garden. In fact, most of the people usually in there also wouldn’t look out of place in Covent Garden. I can’t help but wonder that the Union is so orientated towards one class, it can only serve to polarise.
It’s time the Union stopped viewing the student body as a potential market to be exploited. It’s time they stopped behaving like just another commercial wing of the university (that they’re apparently so opposed to) and remembered what the word UNION means. The Union should be a refuge for students from the private and commercial interests currently infecting what is already the most expensive higher education system in Europe.
And those creepy grinning faces of our Union Officers, plastered on the walls like the cast of Glee; are they really representative of the student body? The union claims to attract the largest numbers of student voters in the country, over 8000. But Sheffield is much larger that the average university and that amounts to a dismal 34.2%, half what one would expect at a general election. And I think it’s safe to say most of the votes are casts are done so with a hilariously little car. Most students I’ve spoken to found a few minuets to vote after checking their Facebook or e-mails, breezing through the pages and pages of tick boxes, selecting whoever had the most amusing or just plain stupid slogan or a memorable name that was yelled at them earlier. So I think its safe to say even slick-back Cameron is a damn sight more of a representative figure than anyone of our Officers. They’re overly keen, squeaky-clean puppets desperate to tart up their CVs with the word ‘Officer’. The recent arrogant and dictatorial banning of The Sun pretty much sums up the single-minded, uninterested attitude they have.
On paper, our Union might be a fair and successful institution. But to some of us, it’s as a bloated, un-inclusive, intimidating and commercially orientated shopping centre. It has a turn over of over 11million a year and owns a string of shops, bars, cafés and even an independent pub. Only by scaling down the Union can it be made less dependent on it’s profits and drip-fed money from the University and so become a truly independent, accessible and progressive organization. And as I’ve made clear, I find the election campaigns so acutely annoying and egocentric I will forever with hold my vote.
I know most students are very proud of our swanky Union. But to be honest, I’d give it up in a second for the rustic and genuinely independent Student Union romantically recalled by my Mum; “It was effectively a giant shed behind the sports field, almost every student could be seen there. We mainly came for the cheap ale, but also the autonomy. It was ours. People would plot how to over throw apatite with out being expelled.”