If students’ unions have always believed that students have a right to control/influence their own lives and surroundings (if not future), then we must ask how and why people come to care enough to take that action. The action, here I would suggest is action outside of the confines of usual routine, outside of the realms of what everyone does or what we do each week. This might be setting up a new society, or it might be going on the national demonstration.
The first step is experience. Students must first reflect upon the experience they have as students, or perhaps the experience others have as poorer students, or as poverty stricken inhabitants of the third world, etc. This is in itself a difficult step. For a start, we as people rarely have the time to reflect upon our own experience. So packed is the busy schedule with work and play, that the time to reflect upon it all is going and gone. This is truer the further down the financial ladder we go. Add in modularisation of courses and increased density and mobility of the population (no longer do 10 students on a course live in hall- 500 live in town) and the time and space to chat about it all in a public forum is gone. Students’ Unions can and should provide a platform and space simply for people to explore and understand the nature of their own experiences, as well as introducing us to others.
Second comes the notion of injustice. Take the email conversation of the two school friends separated into 2 Universities. After the usual “how’s it going” stuff, onemay ask how much the pints are in the others’ union bar. Whoever has the lowest one will get a sense of injustice about that experience. Yet in the public forum and sphere (ie where the students’ union is hosting a meeting or printing the paper), there is rarely a sense given to students that their experience is unjust. It is hard to find a Freshers’ publication proclaiming that one student having to work 30 hours a week in the nightclub when another spends 30 hours a week in the club drinking is immoral and wrong. This may be because there are other things to say or print; it may be because the officers have no view or don’t think it’s wrong; it may be because there is a greater need to poster-promote the nightclub to the spender than to appeal to the worker to keep the union afloat; either way, meetings posters and publications rarely build upon any experience stage with an injustice stage.
If done well and properly, this is the stage that can put fire in the belly and passion in the heart- this is the stage that makes people care. If involvement has its barriers to be removed, then the injustice stage is the moment where the car is fuelled up to overcome barriers anyway. You can open up all the doors- but you still need a passionate reason to come on in. Caring about something that you believe to be unjust and wrong is perhaps the way to do that.
The third, then, is organisation. Before you can take action about something, you at least need to believe that you are not stupid for thinking so- and most people will want to be supported, to have others with them or behind them. This can take many forms- it might be the union declaring its policy or belief, an officer outlining what they and others think, or the organisation declaring that thousands of students are feeling the same. Again, this stage can be difficultmany unions and officers may themselves have not taken a position on the issue, or at least not thought it through or debated it. Rarely is union policy on an issue debated or agreed; rarely do student officers have a view on what the rights of students should be in a given situation. We might say “Grants not Fees”, but what does this mean? The belief statement must match the previously identified injustice, and the support around it must be tangible and real.
Only then, once the other stages are complete, do we then take some action. Even then the action must be clear and possible within the first stage- the students’ situation. Often, people reach this stage but are so unfamiliar or unprepared for the given action that they opt out, feeling powerless and aimless. Tragically though, for most of the time students’ unions and politicians in general simply bemoan the fact that when they present action to people, they don’t take it up. The reality is that the converted are doing the preaching. When an officer says “come on the demo”, they have via their own involvement already gone through the other stages. Yet students have invariably not had this treat or luxury.
Fascinatingly at National Convention this year the opening plenary from an Oxfam activist was 30 minutes long, and this observer timed 11 minutes of experience; 12 minutes of injustice; 6 minutes of policy and 1 minute of action. For the organisation the action was the most important bit but also the least done- signing the postcard was obvious. But it is also clear that Oxfam itself values education as well as action, and that they understand that education leads to action. They understand students better than students’ unions.
There is the psychological reason for this; we underestimate the thorough processes we go through in order to come to see certain actions as normal and desirable. We know why we should care about student hardship or student council- others don’t. But there are other reasons for avoiding the lower steps on the staircase. They are on one level pretty hard work, fraught with conflict and upsetting conversation. Who wants to talk about bad things? Who wants to discuss pain and suffering and poverty and powerlessness and misery? This “loving of limitations” is dealt with below.
But it is also back to markers of success. To effectively build a campaign, or engender democratic participation, requires us to get good at experience, injustice and policy. Yet we only measure action- numbers on the demo, or the prettiness of the gantt chart. We need to recognise the skills involved and find ways of measuring the first 3 steps before we can hope for an effective
action step. We also need to be creative about those first 3 steps. How can we have a chat, in public, about people’s experiences? In the paper? Public meetings? Posters? Websites? And all that is before we even talk about injustice, policy, action or debate.
But the other problem we must face is that this staircase- empowering people to take collective action about the state of their lives- is not one we may actually want students to take when we look at the union as a democratic service provider. Do we really want students to take control of the union and then “mess it up”. When they do attend council having been up the staircase, the results are often emotionally destroying (when they have a go at officers) or odd (they just don’t understand). This may lead us to believing in the model when we want students to take action about others (the university, MP’s etc) but not ourselves (the prices in the bar). When the University says to the Union Officer “You can’t price accommodation like that- don’t be silly” the union may rightly feel patronised and aggrieved. But perhaps this is the feeling of the Union Council member who raises the beer prices issue. This is unsolvable for the moment, but we must conclude that empowering others is perhaps only hard because it involves the transfer of power away from ourselves…to the people.