When was the last time you read a student manifesto? Do you know who represents you in university matters? Are student elections even important?
For anyone directly involved with one of the student bodies, the answer to the latter is, inevitably, yes. They would tell you it’s a great way to have your say in important decision-making within the university, it makes you aware of how an institution is run, and also it’s just really interesting. However, for many students, voting in university elections is the last thing on their mind. So why is this?
For many students, the word ‘politics’ can cause a mild allergic reaction, as the concept has been tainted by years of untrustworthy politicians and confusing messages from the media. So it is understandable that when they come to uni, they want to stay the hell away from it. Making their debut on University Avenue as young 18 year olds, straight out of school, they’ve often not had a chance to flex their democratic muscles yet. Combine this with growing up under the impression that voting doesn’t make a difference, and it can all seem like one big popularity contest with people often voting just because their bestie is running.
In this way, the preconceptions we have about politics in general can tarnish our opinions of student elections. In addition, for some international students, the idea of a student union is marred by the fact that in their country, unions are branches of actual political parties. Anastasia Mourgela, a fourth year English Language student from Greece, told qmunicate: “That’s the norm back home. So if you get involved with a particular union everyone sort of knows your beliefs […] and I was just not interested in the idea, so subconsciously I’d say that put me off getting involved here.”
While some people would say that voting in student elections hardly makes a difference, on the contrary, it could be argued that you will tend to see more of a direct impact than in governmental elections. Imagine, for instance, that you were unhappy with something and wanted to make a change (within reasonable limitations). Whether it be installing microwaves in the library or introducing a mental health awareness campaign, without a system of elections it would be infinitely harder for you to be heard by the people at the top. There would be no representatives to fight your corner and provide the loudspeaker for your voice. In fact, many important schemes that truly improve students’ every-day lives are brought to life by these reps. The Safe Taxi Scheme is a great example of this. Helping to ensure people get home at night safely, it was advocated by SRC officers last year in response to growing calls for students to be more protected against assault on campus.
But we’d be wrong to assume that non-voters are universally not concerned about politics. For a lot of uninterested folks, engaging in governmental elections is standard, they just don’t see the importance of it at uni. In their 2015 Autumn elections, the SRC recorded a meagre 8.5% voter turnout. The other student bodies also face an uphill struggle when it comes to convincing people to vote. Fifth year Product Design Engineering student, Mel Fleming, summarises one of the most common views coming from students: “I’ve never felt like a union is a place that I go to hang out. […] I’m not part of the unions, so what am I getting out of it?” It is certainly reasonable that students who are not involved in the QMU, GUU or GUSA will consequently not vote in their elections. This opens up another can of worms about the unions struggling to stay relevant in the eyes of students, but that’s for another day…
Across the board, the NUS reported a decline in student voting across the UK in the past few years. The QMU was affected by this, but has recently seen a rise in turnout, with a climb from 11% to 14% of its membership voting in the by-elections in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Celia Varela-Sixto, QMU’s Honorary Assistant Secretary, attributes this to a multi-layered campaign to improve turnout: “My angle at it has been to really try and publicise that by running and voting in elections, you can really have a stake in how the unions are run, and what they do for you. We have gone at it by implementing new methods of giving folk the chance to give us feedback […] and we try to keep folk in the loop by reporting on anything interesting that we discuss at board meetings by posting a brief summary on Facebook and asking for feedback. All these things have worked to varying degrees, but they are avenues to be pursued.”
The main reason for student elections – like all elections – is so that you can have a say in matters which affect your daily life, and so you can enact change in those areas. But it’s also about holding authorities to account and making sure they’re not giving you a raw deal. A university’s duty is to answer to the needs of its students, and it must sit up and listen when those students feel strongly about something; elections give you that voice. The people you vote for represent you and seek to take your issues to the higher powers who can then effect those changes. And because they’re students just like everyone else, the idea of approaching them with a suggestion is far less intimidating than with a politician. Take part in student elections, and you’re taking the opportunity to experience a fully-rounded uni life. The importance of elections should indeed be stressed more to students from earlier on, but there’s also a responsibility to be more proactive and read a few manifestos (they’re only a couple of paragraphs long). Who knows, it might just restore your faith in democracy.
Campus-wide elections will take place on Thursday 3rd March. For more information about the QMU Annual General Election, click here.