This week it was reported by Nouse that we may experience an ‘extraordinary referendum’ from the University of York Student Union (YUSU) on the topic of Great Britain’s membership of the European Union. The referendum has been deemed as ‘extraordinary’ because it is unscheduled and might be be implemented on short notice, due to student demand.
I see the referendum as extraordinary for another reason. The students who have proposed the plebiscite are indirectly proposing for the student union to divide its members by taking a position that is not in the interests of everyone. In other words, the students want YUSU to get political.
A referendum on Great Britain’s membership of the European Union has the potential to be one of the many examples in which the YUSU has overstepped its boundaries and entered the realm of politics. Eleven months ago the union called for a decision on the boycott of Israeli goods from occupied Palestinian territories. As Matthew Dent explained to The Yorker at the time, such a referendum would be largely meaningless to student life at York. The university receives no goods from Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories; boycotting the goods would be just “a symbol.” Considering that YUSU is a union for the students of the University of York, there doesn’t seem to be any need to express a symbol like this.
The purpose of a union is to represent the welfare and interests of its members. Ben Leatham, the president of YUSU, is the President of an organisation that looks out for the welfare of the students of the University of York. He and his team look out for York students and cooperate with other student unions affiliated with the National Union of Students. But besides this, a student union’s participation in politics is severely limited.
Moreover, a student union works in the interests of its students regardless of the political party in government, the place of Great Britain in the European Union or the state of affairs in the Middle East. Committing the union to an ideological standpoint of any nature is at once stepping beyond the job description. The student union should fight discrimination on unfair grounds and ensure that students receive good contact and education from the university; it should not be backing ‘Brexit’, calling foul play when a Conservative government is elected or complaining if Donald Trump becomes President of the United States.
Indeed, to choose an ideology would be counteracting the very definition of a student union. When two YUSU Officers took part in organising a rally against the Conservative Party’s election victory in May 2015, some students who supported the winning party felt as though their representatives were working against them. It seemed that they had voted for the wrong party and weren’t interested in the welfare of their friends at York.
I didn’t vote for the Conservative Party in May, and I’d gamble that plenty of YUSU Officers didn’t either. But, believe it or not, plenty of students did vote for the Conservatives, and whatever one might think of their collective decision, it was a decision that must be respected. For the student union to lend any sort of support for any opposition party would make it difficult to claim that YUSU is neutral and sticks up for all students, including its Conservative ones.
Being an officer for the student union is not and should not be a muzzle on one’s expression of opinions. Each statement that is not to do with the representation of students should be clearly accompanied by a disclaimer. It is relieving that each blog post from a union officer is underlined with such a notice, but using official accounts to get involved in student politics with an ideological commitment undermines the union’s claim to political neutrality.
I do not think that the student union should take a position on the nation’s membership of the European Union. Each referendum that the student union puts forward does more than ask the question that is outlined; it asks the for the student body’s permission for the union to hold another political opinion.
By making an ideological choice, YUSU instantly divides its members. Instead, why not concentrate on the things that each and every student can benefit from? More funding for societies, computers to borrow in libraries, or healthier food in campus bars?