What is a Students’ Union for?


Before this year, I knew very little of the purpose and function of a Students’ Union. Since getting involved in student politics, its ‘role’ in University life has become clearer. But with this discovery, and after first-hand experience of protest, police brutality and repression on my own campus, I have also learned how the Student’s Union is, in many ways, letting its students down.

On Tuesday, 15 courageous occupiers from UAL were taken to court by their own University for protesting against cuts to education. UAL management had announced cuts to hundreds of foundation places, as well as job redundancies, without any consultation from students or staff. This outrageous move is sadly indicative of the insidious privatisation of our education system that is happening today, and how management will use the dirtiest of tactics to silence anyone who dares to fight against them.

The saddest thing is, I wasn’t even shocked by UAL management’s behaviour. How could I be, when just 4 months ago we were faced with exactly the same situation at Warwick? Following an 8-day long occupation in December, the University unsurprisingly chose the authoritarian route of taking their own students to court, threatening them with unlimited legal costs and buying an injunction which bans “occupational-style protest” indefinitely on campus.

When students are faced with increasingly repressive opposition from university management, this is where I believe the SU should be playing its most fundamentally important role. Student Unions are, in theory, the highest form of student representation. They were created to promote the welfare and voices of students, by giving them a platform to engage democratically in University processes and decisions. And let us not forget that they were fought for. At Warwick, the only reason we have a dedicated SU building is as a direct result of a successful occupation back in the 70’s. Too often, Student Unions fall into a “mediating” role between the ‘activists’ and management whenever the relationship between the University and students becomes overtly political. Far from being neutral, this works in favour of the University and against the students, and reinforces the neoliberal paradigm of the SU being some sort of hollow “service provider”. We need Unions run by their members, with direct democratic process and a commitment to taking action to fight for our interests.

7 of the 15 named protestors who were taken to court by UAL were elected student representatives. The SU President, supported by a fantastic sabb team, were not only an integral part of the occupation, but also fought hard in court for the rights of their students, thus managing to throw out legal costs and disciplinaries against protesters. To me, this was a perfect example of why SUs exist, and how they should be at the heart of student activism, thus taking the lead in fighting for students whose rights are under attack.

Sadly, here at Warwick, the situation was in stark contrast. Seeing what SUs can be like in the past few weeks has led me to reflect on our own experiences, and the ways in which I feel we have been really let down in the past 4 months:

  • Inside the occupation, after the first couple of hours we had exceptionally little face-to-face contact with any SU representatives, and were pretty much left to fend for ourselves.
  • During our forced and utterly farcical “negotiations” meeting with management the SU remained silent over our demands – many of which they are mandated to support via SU democratic policy – and would not speak out vocally for our right to protest.
  • Not a single SU representative came to support students in court when they were being legally threatened by the University.
  • After 3 protestors, including a Warwick student, were violently arrested at the December sit-in which led to the occupation, the SU were nowhere to be seen at the first bail review, the second bail review or the court hearing.
  • The SU have stayed silent after being asked to voice public solidarity with the Warwick 3 whose welfare has suffered enormously from the ongoing trauma they have faced, and are still facing.
  • At the recent Warwick summit on protest, when student activists challenged 4 University representatives over their handling of the December events, the SU would not even condemn university management in failing to uphold its duty of care towards students.

It is imperative that solidarity is more than just words. As I see and hear SU representatives offering vague “solidarity” on social media with UAL activists taken to court, I ask myself – where was this support back in December when we needed it so badly; when it was happening HERE, on our own campus? Looking to the future, I would like to see the SU supporting us fully in fighting to lift the Warwick injunction which threatens student wellbeing and directly attacks our right to protest. I would like to see the SU showing real-life solidarity when the Warwick 3 face their 4-day trial in July. I would like to see an SU which doesn’t back down to the profit-driven demands of management, and always puts the welfare of students first.

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