Unions don’t have to be like this – Aberystwyth should demand better

The furore over the now infamous ‘Ed Sheeran Day’, where the Students’ Union forgoed any significant statements on Trans Remembrance Day (excluding a single Facebook post) in place of various tributes to and mini-games inspired by the popular singer-songwriter, might well be seen as over-blown. Perhaps, in isolation it is. But it comes as the latest in a trend of PR stunts ran by the Students’ Union to make up for a clear lack of policy and vision. This isn’t to do down any of the individuals working for the Union, many of whom I have previously enjoyed working with. But a Union’s job is not to act as the student arm of the university. The SU simply must look to better integrate the experiences of minority students into its every-day operations. Dates such as Trans Remembrance Day need to be marked on the calendar, they need to be seen early and planned for. Similarly, it is the responsibility of students to make the SU aware of these things, and to back the issues they represent through meaningful policy. Unions are the voice of those they serve. Aberystwyth’s student body must be more expressive in order to make that voice stronger.

It doesn’t have to be like this. I was a student representative and society committee member for all three years of my undergraduate degree. I attended Union Councils and AGMs. The manner of debates and the issues that were debated was always incredibly frustrating. One that particularly springs to mind is the vote that forced the Union to give a stronger endorsement of the UCU strikes. Both UCU representatives and students expressed their disappointment with the SU, who ducked out of conflict in order to nurture a cosy relationship with the university’s Vice Chancellors. Yes, we won that vote and the endorsement was re-written in stronger terms. And the full-time officers did subsequently march with the UCU, for which they should be commended. But fighting against the SU for this was disheartening and frustrating. Compare this to Sussex’s SU, which not only produced a comprehensive Q&A on the UCU strikes to answer the queries and worries of students, but overwhelmingly backed the strikes and supported students who felt out of pocket as a result of the industrial action. This is the sort of stuff SUs should be doing.

The university I am currently enrolled in, UCL, has an incredibly active SU which often challenges the University directly and publicly. They are currently running a campaign to decolonise the campus, pushing for buildings built in the honour of eugenicists to be renamed and reading lists to be made more diverse. Here is an SU committed to inclusivity, unafraid to set out a progressive vision for university life. At times, it seems that Aberystwyth SU is so wrapped up in NSS scores, in helping further the University’s PR machine, that it cannot effectively scrutinise, it cannot accurately represent its students.

More so than any ‘Ed Sheeran’ day, the SU’s attitude towards the Prevent policy has been disappointing from the beginning. It has been consistently presented to societies as a necessity to keep students safe, even as other SUs, even other universities, have turned on its problematic focus, its elements of racism and its impingements on free speech. It’s often argued that Universities should be spaces of free speech, debate and discussion. Prevent is a direct road-block to such an environment.

It has been difficult to write this article. Aber SU has been there for me as an academic representative and as a committee member of a society. There are positive signs, such as the campaign to reopen Pantycelyn, a victory that was hard-fought and well deserved. But it has also been a source of frustration, an unpolitical and apathetic organisation at a time where grassroots activism is more important than ever. Aberystwyth University is a cultural institution with an important place in the history of intellectual thought in Wales. I want to see a Union that reflects that, not one which rejects it in favour of populism. But, for that to happen, it is Aberystwyth’s students that need to get active, turn up to votes, and demand more from their Students’ Union. It is your proposals, your votes for change, which will make the SU the force it could be.