Universities treat students like customers, so why aren't we always right?

When this Bristol University student broke the story of the Christian Union's ban on female speakers, she realised they weren't the only ones without a voice

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Student politics are not normally big news on campus in Bristol. The Student Union’s recent part-time officer elections saw a turnout of fewer than 500 individuals from a student population of around 13,000. I’m an English student and even I can tell that’s not great. However, for the last couple of days, my Facebook newsfeed is clogged with posts about gender issues and the gossip in the library has been of nothing else

So what's going on? Last week the Bristol Christian Union (BUCU) sent out an email explaining to their members that women were not allowed to speak on their own at a variety of BUCU events. I co-edit the student feminist magazine, That’s What She Said , and when this email was posted on the Feminist Society Facebook page my first thought was that the mighty power of the press was needed to right this gross injustice. My second thought was that I needed to stop thinking in clichés and my third was that this could be more than a little awkward, given that one of my housemates is a member of the BUCU executive committee.

However, with the Leveson Inquiry ringing in my ears, I knew that this was no time for nepotism. Also I was angry. The sort of good old-fashioned feminist rage that you just don’t get enough of nowadays. Sometimes, you need to get strident.

I wrote an article about the issue which was published in the Bristol Tab on Tuesday morning. Whilst I knew that I and my friends were horrified by this discrimination (I wouldn’t shut up about it at parties over the weekend) I never anticipated the response that the story would get. Accounts of the ban appeared on the Huffington Post, the Guardian, The Independent blog, Jezebel.com, and by dinnertime Richard Dawkins was tweeting about it. Mumsnet survey be dammed, feminism is apparently still alive and kicking.

Unfortunately, during the coverage it became apparent that the BUCU had not been announcing a new policy and were instead formalizing pre-existing practice. The current BUCU committee were personally attacked in a way I found abhorrent, with members of the public and students sending hate mail and abuse. Although I massively disagree with their policy, the CU committee are students trying to find a solution to a problem still confounding the Church of England. In a letter to the student newspaper, Epigram, Lucy Beggs pleaded that Christianity should still be ‘associated with equality and unity, rather than division and conflict’ as the debate began to turn into a casual bit of Christian bashing.

The University responded extremely rapidly to this international embarrassment, and on Wednesday evening the BUCU released a statement saying that they will now ‘extend speaker invitations to both women and men, to all BUCU events, without exception’.

The BUCU also declared that it ‘deplores the recent exaggerations and misrepresentations in some parts of the media’ regarding this controversy. Whilst it was true that not all reports, including mine, reflected the true state of affairs, this criticism seems to ignore the fact that it was only because of media scrutiny that change occurred so quickly.

Call me cynical, but if it had only been the student newspapers reporting on the issue, I doubt the union would have reacted so hastily. This is not to attack the Union Council, a team of students and recent graduates who campaign tirelessly on issues such as widening participation, LGBT+ rights and sustainability, but rather to highlight the disconnect between University management and students.

Very often students do not get involved in Union politics or bother to scrutinize University policies, but I would argue that this is not because we are not interested, but because there is so little evidence of University management valuing our input. Students are now customers; expected to pay eye-watering fees for the privilege of attending university. However, nobody seems to have informed our faculty offices that ‘the customer is always right’. A quick straw poll of my friends revealed that none of us felt that University truly wanted to hear our opinions, despite the polls they encourage us to take.

This disenfranchisement is not confined to undergraduates.  I spoke to a PhD student who told me that in school meetings he has found ‘no room for debate whatsoever, it's the veneer of democracy’. And this is in the Sociology Department, a self-proclaimed critical department.  As he said, ‘I experience feelings of not being listened to or not being cared about on a daily basis, really, at this university’. Many would agree with this statement.

Worries of sounding entitled shouldn’t stop students from demanding more from their universities.

It often feels nigh on impossible to have your voice heard by senior management. Cerelia Athanassiou, the senate post-graduate rep, informed me that, at the last meeting she attended, the increased demand on student support services was ignored, despite support staff being ‘pushed to the limit’. As Athanassiou pointed out, this means that ‘we are forgetting about some of our most vulnerable University members' well-being’. It’s not so much apathy as exhaustion that keeps students from speaking out.

We are constantly reminded how enormously privileged we are to attend higher education, and I know that this is true. I’ve essentially been given three years to spend reading the world’s greatest works of literature while getting to try hundreds of new activities, spend time with people from all over the world and learn that this city looks its best when walking home at seven in the morning. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend my time, although that may be because my imagination has been stifled by years of prescriptive teaching and my intellect deadened by grade inflation (the youth of today etc.). However, worries of sounding entitled shouldn’t stop students from demanding more from their universities.

Hopefully this incident with the BUCU will demonstrate to senior management that all student concerns are important, not only those that bring the university’s name into disrepute.  The student community in Bristol should take pride that our voice was heard crying out against injustice on a global platform and have more faith in our abilities to effect change in the future. That may sound idealistic, but if you’re not going to be blindly optimistic at university then all those fees really will feel like a waste.   

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