Buried deep within the University of Birmingham’s Guild of Students website is a page marked ‘Autumn Term Elections’. This October week, during which students cast ballots for a variety of positions, is not afforded the pre-eminence of its big brother: the officer elections of the summer, during which the faces and names that adorn the overbearing banner atop the Guild building emerge from offices and lecture halls to put forward their grounds for election and re-election.
Autumn term elections, opposingly, fail to make any appearance on the Guild home page, even during election week. Instead, the page is devoted to publicising the Union Instagram, student deals, and a massive header image displaying the names and faces of officers, much in the way of that large banner, which spans the Guild building’s edifice.
Is the Guild consciously trying to play-down this term’s election? I doubt it, they’d have little to gain in doing so, and election periods are usually great vehicles for advancing student participation in Guild affairs, which are often thought to be distant to the immediate needs and concerns of the student body.
The absence of information pertaining to this autumn’s elections may instead be a symptom of a much deeper problem: student disaffection.
Unlike the summer elections, the current cycle will nominate numerous, non-official positions, from the chairman of officer question time to delegates for the National Union of Students conference in Glasgow, next March. This year, the latter positions dominate, with candidates seeking to fill 8 NUS delegate positions, as well as a variety of other liberation NUS posts.
But you’d struggle to know it. Campus is not awash with campaign banners and placards, and the Fab ‘n’ Fresh Facebook page is un-inundated with campaign slogans and manifestos in the usual way.
No doubt, much of this student disaffection is a corollary of the NUS internally: the institution has been plagued with accusations of anti-Semitism and poor leadership, driving many of its member universities to hold referendums on membership.
But, I would argue, internal complications represent just one half of a wider problem.
Year upon year, the same or a similar band of candidates emerge to proclaim grand promises: that a vote for ‘A’ is a vote for increased maintenance loans, or a vote for ‘B’ will guarantee the rights of EU students, post-Brexit.
Such assurances, in the long-term, have worked to thoroughly undermine the faith of students in our NUS delegates. Proclamations are made, emphatically, in the run up to and during election week. But then voting closes, and, more often or not, victors disappear into obscurity, with nothing more to be heard of their agendas, or the successes/failures of the approaches they employ to assure that their grand promises are met, or at least fought for.
As we have seen with the European Union these past years, the failure of an institution and its representatives to effectively communicate function precipitates a dire loss of faith in that institution. We are witnessing repetition of the same phenomena, only on a much smaller scale.
The solution is twofold. First, we must be realistic in the goals we, as candidates, enounce to the student population. The effect of promising greater student finance and reduced tuition fees, without communication as to the means undertaken to accomplish such ends, in the long term, is to paint NUS candidates as little more than careerists, willing to trade trust with the student body for votes. We, as candidates, must not take the student body for chumps: this is a hollow cycle of grand promises and a lack of post-election communication of which all are aware, and is thoroughly damaging to the integrity of our election processes.
Second, and most importantly, communication is key. Candidates should and must commit to connecting with the student community as much post-election as during. It is one thing to proclaim vague support for ‘ending discrimination’, but quite another to utilise your position and actually do something about it. NUS representatives are just that: representatives, and as such should feel obliged to convey to their voters and students the means they have undertaken in pushing conversations forward, and in addressing the internal afflictions of the NUS.
These are two areas I’m committed to advancing, with the intent of restoring an element of faith in the NUS, our elections more broadly and, who knows, maybe drawing the autumn election cycle to the front page of the Guild website.