AS someone who’s now in their fourth year at this University (I feel so old), February brings me more dread and repressed exasperation than any other month. Yes, the upcoming Sabb elections once again loom – everybody try and contain your excitement. Once again, Forum Hill will transform into a minefield of campaigners trying to bombard you with manifesto points as you take your merry stroll up to your 8:30 lecture in Peter Chalk. But don’t worry if you manage to avoid them; they’ll still find you on your social media – normally in the form of those ridiculous campaign videos that make me cringe harder than a Nicholas Sparks novel. For me, these elections just become a symbol of all the disconnect I see between student reps and the student body itself.
To be clear, I don’t blame the Sabbs themselves; it’s more the system they’ve become stuck within. Let’s start with the elections. I love the passion that the people running hold to do good, but there must be a better platform for their campaigning. Jumping on people on campus really cannot be the only method for student engagement. You can be walking down Forum Hill with friends, having your own private conversations about the latest house drama, or who pulled at TP this week, when suddenly some stranger jumps in and thrusts a flyer at you. Either that or they prod chocolates or cakes at you like you’re a performing animal or some small child that won’t stop crying. I once had one follow me all the way down Forum Hill as they rattled off their friend’s manifesto even though I had already politely declined to engage. Top tip – pestering might not get you votes. Of course, some people do enjoy the interaction with the candidates and their teams and that’s great. Yet, I wonder if those who feel uneasy in social situations enjoy this form of hard-hitting canvassing? Has anyone stopped and asked?
But the campaigning is only one small part of my issue with the whole concept of the Sabbs. There is just very little there that encourages student engagement.
I don’t feel like I would go to the Sabbs if I had a problem – I would go to a tutor, SID or even the head of my department first. I do know people who have and have had good experiences, but my point is that it’s not always the obvious solution. The Sabbs are locked away in their tiny office in the corner of DH1, obscured by all the super committed students with their Pret cups that swarm that corridor like bees to a flower. It’s an odd setup. Are the Sabbs approachable? Do you need an appointment? Can you just email them out the blue? Which one do you email? It’s all very muddy.
I know people at other universities in which the student representatives are much less involved, and others in which they’re so much more visible. It’s the culture of the uni. There isn’t a checklist of things I could take to the Guild and say ‘Do this to make things better’, it’s one part of the overriding issue. I’ve had the most interaction I’ve ever had with the Sabbs this year (which isn’t saying much) and they are all lovely people who genuinely work hard to improve this university. But the system doesn’t seem to help them. The rest of us, as part of the student body, are expected to vote these people in every year, and that’s where our input stops. If I wasn’t on a society committee, I’m not sure that I would even know their names. I still don’t even know the difference between each of the roles.
The counter-argument to all this, of course, is that maybe it’s down to me to get involved. Maybe I should take more of an everyday interest in these things. Take the leap. Talk to the Sabbs, join Shadow Council, go to the meetings etc. All fair points that I thought about before I started typing this very article, yet there’s something in the back of my mind that says no. Why should I feel like I would have to do that to gain any interaction or knowledge of them and what they do day-to-day? I need more than an email every so often, or to see their picture in the corridors, or have them thrust a bloody pamphlet at me as I’m trying to get to my class. I want something more.
My point simply is – what do the Sabbs do for me on a daily basis? That sounds super selfish at first glance, but I do struggle to see how they change my everyday experience. I don’t mean I want the Sabbs to jump out at me and show me all the good they’ve done, more that I would like it to be clearer what initiatives are theirs. That might be a start. You’ve done a thing – be proud of it and shout it at me. Don’t make it all about you, but at least tell me you’ve had a hand in it. Some might say it’s not about the individuals themselves, but the changes they make. In this case, it is precisely about the individual. We vote for them in terms of their personality and their policies. We deserve to see the results of our supposed faith in them. As I write this, without any googling, I couldn’t tell you more than two or three initiatives introduced in recent years the Sabbs have directly had a hand in. I know that digital check-in is still going even though the student body voted to get rid of it. How does that work? Do the students here have a voice for change, or simply just a voice that can be ignored when it suits the University?
There needs to be a whole culture change in the way this university deals with its student voice. Even our representatives seem marginalised.
The most annoying thing about all this is I can’t tell you specifically what that would be or how it would emerge. It’s not just one thing. The Sabbs feel like an afterthought, a box checked, rather than anything created as a force for substantial change. They don’t feel part of us. It won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve never voted in these elections, because why would I want to? I don’t feel represented by these people. Once they’re in office, they disappear. They fall into the background like wallpaper – always there, but nobody really stops to pay attention beyond a glance. I have friends at other unis that are in their respective Sabb positions, and they tell me how integrated they feel within the student body itself. They are at the heart of the uni, they live and breathe it. They lead from the front as pillars newer students look to and aspire to. Here, it feels a little bit different. I’ve never felt that the Sabbs are integrated into the student community. If anything, they’re enclosed within a tiny box room opposite a technology shop – obscured by the very people they wanted to help.