Have you heard? You probably haven’t – outside of the Singleton Bubble of Swansea’s budding journo-politicos, student political news in fact travels very, very slowly – but get this: the Swansea Student Union just held another referendum.
Last Wednesday, in the aftermath of the media whirlwind following the board of trustees’ decision to disaffiliate the university’s Pole Fitness society, the student body was finally given a chance to decide for itself whether or not the society was worthy of SU funding. In what can only be described as an embarrassing turn of events, 93% of those who voted, voted against the Union’s (unanimous) original decision. It’s certainly possible that this paints an image of a union not entirely in-touch with the attitudes of the students it represents. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the stark contrast in opinions demonstrates that the Union is distinctly the opposite of in-touch. How can the board of trustees pass a measure unanimously, when the same measure is almost unanimously opposed by students at the university? Putting aside the tricky feminist infighting that surrounds the issue for a moment, you have to wonder how we got to this point in the first place.
Well, a closer look at the numbers might provide our first clue. When I say that 93% of students voted to reverse the SU’s decision that comes with an important caveat, out of the 18,445 students in attendance at Swansea University, only 142 voted in the referendum. The 132 students who supported the motion actually constitute 0.7% of students at the university. I imagine they’re thankful that the opposition only managed to rally a doubly dismal 0.05%, but the fact that only three-quarters of a percent of students at the university even cared enough to vote betrays a pervasive apathy about student politics that leaves the Union itself with something of a micro-mandate. We vest in the student union the right to govern on issues that affect all eighteen-thousand of us, but how can they possibly look to be representative when only a tiny fraction of students voice their opinions in the first place?
It’s probably unfair to point at the recent referendum results as a damning illustration of young adult apathy – the referendum was scarcely publicised by the Union, and was shrouded by a hell of a lot of confusing bureaucracy. It wasn’t until there were only three hours remaining to vote that I discovered that the referendum I had voted in just two days prior (itself a re-run of the referendum I had voted in three days prior to that), was actually only a referendum on the idea of a referendum, and that – having voted in this meta-referendum mistaking it for the real deal – I would have to vote again to make sure that the motion I had previously voiced support for, would pass at all. I also found out that the trustees’ board could veto the result of the referendum anyway, rendering this whole song and dance utterly pointless. When Zoe Alford said, prior to all this confusion, that “often students don’t want to get involved with the drama of student politics”, this is what she must have meant. I am interested in feminist issues, and I’m also interested in making sure students get a fair deal from our university, but frankly this unholy monolith of bureaucratic obfuscation just makes it all feel futile.
Let’s look back to March of this year. Well publicised and often hotly contested, the SUSU elections are naturally the main event of Swansea’s student political calendar, and as a result of this they garner a turnout that dwarfs that of the relatively minor referenda that occur throughout the year. The Siren reports that in 2013, over 3,000 votes were cast in these elections, at the time touted as a vindication of the Student Union’s online voting system. However, the fact that 16% of students using their vote is seen as a peak in student political activity is perhaps damning, and reflects the mood of students nationwide.
A friend of mine studying at Reading recently said, “no-one really cares about student politics. It doesn’t mean anything.” Admittedly, I was among those who murmured agreement, and I feel like the whole Pole Fitness episode has somewhat emboldened that part of me. It’s not that we don’t care what happens to us, it’s just that this constant politicking, this to-ing and fro-ing, this clutching onto fractionally tiny mandates, really doesn’t mean anything. All the bureaucracy and the bickering distract us from the real issues and scare away those with heartfelt opinions. It’s student politics all over, and no-one really cares.
By Olly Treen