Every day, the authors of this article are impressed by the numbers of student activists organising on campus. We watch our peers engage with the politics of the university in both curricular and extra-curricular contexts. In recent years there has been an upsurge of initiatives led by students who defy the more accepted model of passive learning. Critical, independent student voices can be heard getting louder and clearer on the University of Edinburgh campus.
This is true, especially among Black and brown students. Only in the past couple of years, a number of mould-breaking political initiatives led by a majority of Black and brown students have been inspiring and emboldening transformative campaigns and discourses that have seen the support and praise of many academics and other staff members on campus. It is undeniable that political engagement defines the learning experiences of many at this university, particularly Black and brown students’.
In light of such bold student activity, one cannot help but notice that the Students’ Association is lacking such political enthusiasm. Students are reluctant to politically engage with the university through the Student’s Association – once again, that is especially true for Black and brown students at this university.
An especially worrying pattern can be observed in the recently-released list of candidates for the 2019 Edinburgh University Students’ Association elections. There is an overwhelming underrepresentation of Black and brown students among the current Students’ Association candidates for the sabbatical and liberation offices/positions.
One cannot help but wonder why given the bold contributions that students of colour make on a regular basis to the politics of the University of Edinburgh, why are we witnessing such underrepresentation? Why are students of colour so reluctant to get involved with the Students’ Association?
This year, The Students’ Association’s Liberation Campaigns hosted a series of events aimed at “redefining leadership”, hoping perhaps to motivate more BME, LGBT+, Disabled and Women students to take up leadership roles in the Students’ Association. While valuable and well-received, the focus of this series stems perhaps from a misjudgement on the part of the Students’ Association. It is not a lack of leadership skills that keep these students away from the candidacies. Many of them, especially those who are BME, are actively engaging with university politics and are constantly re-defining what it means to learn. They lack neither inspiration nor motivation.
The issue with poor engagement has never been a lack of leaders, instigators, organisers — but a specific and general apprehension towards the Students’ Association itself. Instead of putting the onus on students for their lack of contribution to their university, the Students’ Association should really be interrogating itself, the way it works as an institution, and why so many students feel alienated by the body that supposedly represents them.
There are many enthusiastic and vocal leaders among students who are BME. They do not need the Students’ Association to inspire and motivate them to rise to the many challenges provided by the UK Higher Education system. What they need is perhaps the Students’ Association to provide a better, more concrete platform for them to stand on, with ideological integrity and structural support for those marginalised students who are systematically neglected by the University. If the Students’ Association fails to make progress in that direction, it will only see a decrease in numbers of Black and brown representatives, who prefer to build their platform on campus rather than stand on the very corporate staging built by the Students’ Association.
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