The referendum on creating a new ‘Working-Class and Social Mobility Officer’ is symptomatic of much of what is wrong with The University of York Student Union (YUSU). It reflects many of YUSU’s seemingly intractable problems, whilst obscuring those the Union is supposedly trying to address.
Firstly, it is a product of one of YUSU’s most unhealthy instincts—bureaucratisation as a first port of call. Instead of coming up with a tangible policy based solution to improving the plight of working class students, YUSU opted to add another official to its already swollen ranks. This referendum is not helping working class students, it’s obscuring their issues behind a ludicrous cavalcade of student politics. If we look at much of YUSU’s output, it singularly fails to identify the actual issues involved. The October blogpost fails to expand upon the issues that ‘working class’ students actually face, but goes into detail about YUSU’s process. Whilst Nouse’s coverage of the ‘No’ campaign’s activities is thorough and to be commended, it highlights how the already unstated issues this referendum is supposedly designed to tackle are being buried beneath a debate about electoral conduct.
This is in no small part because of the nature of the debate YUSU have set up. The referendum motion reads “Should YUSU adopt a new Part-Time Officer position, the Working-Class & Social Mobility Officer, who would represent their own network?”. “Working-Class” is already a difficult to define and in many ways antiquated term. Is it defined by income, which seems rather arbitrary? Is it defined by some essential class ‘traits,’ which is at best old fashioned and at worst reminiscent of the dark side of Victorian sensibility? Even if we can define this key term, ‘network’ is also almost meaningless in this context. Social networks are amorphous at the best of times, but the layering of two difficult to define terms leaves us with a referendum that requires a good deal of semantic clarification before we can even begin to engage with the issues, which YUSU have failed to identify anyway.
YUSU have form in this area. The 2016 student charter was brim full of “non-specific truisms” as it peddled values that almost everyone would agree with. Those who would oppose them are unlikely to be moved by PDF in their university inbox. When YUSU have asked specific questions (over the National Student Survey and National Union of Students) they have been of little to no interest to students. Turnouts in both referenda were below 16% and the fact that this constitutes a viable result is astonishing.
Why? The tendency in almost all discourse is to seek some kind of conspiracy, a puppeteer setting this banal and out of kilter agenda. This is reductive. The issue is institutional, with authority so dispersed by fear of treading on toes because of overlapping of roles that the only action left to the Union is referenda, making more officials or peddling platitudes. All of these compound each other, creating a vicious cycle of vague, notional policy.
It is, of course, very easy to lambast a system. What could we replace YUSU with? Perhaps the answer is nothing. YUSU’s scope is too broad and ill defined. Whilst there is no doubt that many of those within it do good, well intentioned work, the efforts of individuals are stultified in an over complex system. Strip back YUSU, give more powers to college chairs and free individual agents to act.
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