Student election posters at Edinburgh University / ms.akr (flickr)

 

As Student Officer Elections roll around at universities up and down the country, I can’t be the only one that meets election hysteria with a degree of scepticism. Now believe me, I wish I wasn’t so cynical; I wish I could envisage the glowing future articulated by candidates, and believe in their rosy promises to bring down the price of beer and finally scrap exams.

I really want to believe that my university is a democracy with all major decisions being taken by elected representatives, because in theory, having elected officers to represent student opinion is a great idea. Students are paying huge fees and should ultimately be entitled to a voice as to where this money goes. Like Parliament on a smaller scale, issues are taken to the university trustees by elected officers and debated; yet in practice, the election of student officer positions leaves a lot to be desired.

The most controversial issue is the money involved. At my university, these elected officers are paid £24,500 per annum. At UCL, it's £25,000 and at Royal Holloway, £23,000. Outside London, the salary falls a little, but not much: at Cardiff, roles are advertised with a salary range of £19,499 - £19,959, and at Birmingham City it's £17,064 – with 40 days of paid holiday as a rather nice added bonus. A quick scroll through a graduate job site shows that the most common starting salaries for graduates in London are between £18,000 and £22,000, making elected officer salaries undoubtedly above the average. 

This year, Queen Mary kicked off their elections by advertising the role on a poster with a simple message: “Earn £24,500”. And herein lies the problem. Because surely, this can only be a hindrance to the campaign; instead of encouraging applicants who care about the union, the roles will be taken by those enticed by the idea of having a nice year out with generous remuneration. The whole thing becomes something of a farce, where the only people who have a real interest in the election are the campaigners because of what they stand to gain; making wild promises that students know cannot be kept in order to win. Surely, this unspoken reality of the election process undermines the point of voting at all?

At a time when universities are permitted to charge £9,000 a year, it is more important than ever that students feel their fees are justified; so forgive me if, when my student debt is funding these elected officers' salaries, I expect to see some results. However, when manifestos are based on vague statements such as “I'll continue to seek new platforms to gather your views” (University of Greenwich), it’s difficult to hold officers accountable and see what they have actually achieved. Similarly, statements like “Cash machines are still unreliable. I will communicate with the banks to find the solution” (University of Bath) and “We will ensure buses are accessible and frequent” (University of Warwick) are equally unbelievable. Students aren’t stupid – we know these officers don’t have the power to fix cash points or change a bus timetable. And yet, we all seem to buy into this idea that they can, year after year – and then pay them a large sum of money to do it.

I love the idea. I love that student elections aim to promote democracy on campus, give students the chance to hold the university trustees accountable and, indirectly, encourage participation in politics on a wider scale. But the facts speak for themselves; in 2014, the National Student Survey revealed that only 68 per cebt students are satisfied with their union. When an entire university’s election campaign gets only 3,572 votes – a total of 17 per cent of the student body voting – it is clear that all most students feel is apathy, and something needs to change. Increase accountability, ban empty promises and stop using money as an incentive to stand; then perhaps student elections will become something worthy of a vote.

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