With a familiarity as comforting as the return of the beloved Halloumi burger, this week saw the start of the 2017 Students’ Association elections. Potterrow is adorned with posters, newsfeeds are awash with Vote For Me Facebook pages and lectures are opened by nervous yet eager pleas from candidates.
It is no secret that turnout for Students’ Association elections is low. The University of Edinburgh is 30,000 students strong, but current Students’ Association President Alec Edgecliffe-Johnson only received 2232 votes, the highest vote for any sabb that year. Those who do vote tend to be already politically engaged, attending student council, or involved in societies either as a member or in a committee position. As such, candidates who develop policies that try and engage students beyond those already inclined to vote should be celebrated. The worry is that by appealing to what we think will get students to vote, we begin to prioritise what students want, and not what they need.
Achievability is a primary concern. It is an identical dilemma every year; in trying to capture the interest of the wider student body, candidates offer increasingly outlandish and consequently impractical pledges. The pledges are then not met which leads to greater apathy among voters. Simon Fern wrote in The Student last year that if candidates are going to make policy proposals, “they should be prepared to provide evidence which shows their capacity to achieve that manifest point”. President Alec Edgecliffe-Johnson promised to deliver ‘one app to rule them all’, an app combining MyEd, events, timetables and talks. This was also promised by Andy Peel VPSA the previous year, and it is becoming evident that neither candidate was able to make this happen within their term.
Every year, the manifesto pledge to release the exam timetables earlier is raised. Two years ago, it was raised by President Jonny Ross-Tatum, and this year it has been proposed by Presidential candidate Patrick Kilduff. As Womens’ Convenor Chris Belous pointed out on Twitter during #EdQT, “timetables cannot really be released any earlier due to disability adjustments for exams”. Prior to the exam timetable release, there is a disability adjustment period to ensure the necessary arrangements can be made for students. Releasing the exam timetable earlier will impact on the length of this adjustment period, which will then have ramifications for disabled students.
In the student sphere of online campaigns, the hype around ‘poster day’, and lecture shout outs, it might be easy to forget that some of who we elect hold salaried positions.
There is no official fact checker or mechanisms for holding people to account for what they say during campaign season. We want our candidates to be ambitious, but manifesto pledges must take into account funding, specific student needs and the reality of the hard work already undertaken by the Students’ Association. More than once during #EdQT did sabbatical officers tweet that the suggestions being made by candidates were either unachievable, or already initiated. When Presidential candidate Beth Harris spoke about hoping to utilise viral online marketing during #EdQT, Jenna Kelly VPS rightly quipped on Twitter that the Students’ Assocation “make so many videos that none of you watch”. In order to offer credible ideas, incoming sabbatical officers need to have an understanding of the limitations of the roles they want to fill.
During the debates, Flipside tweeted “The first candidate to promise a Waitrose in Potterrow will win the popular vote by a landslide”. Jokes aside, the boundary between policy and populism is narrowing. Kilduff opens his campaign video with the promise of free Big Cheese entry in the week of your birthday. He then goes on to highlight some superb policy suggestions: tackling the issue of food waste across campus and offering subject specific subsidies are two of note. When The Student spoke to his campaign team on ‘Poster Day’, the first thing they mentioned was the Big Cheese policy. Whilst populist policies like these can be useful in engaging disenfranchised students, they should not detract from more meaningful policies concerning pertinent matters on campus. Urgent issues affecting the student body should take precedence over, shall we say, cheesy gimmicks.
Although sabbatical candidates make election promises and then fail to deliver them, we can hardly call them the Lib Dems. Campaigns are hard, long, and undertaken alongside studying for a degree, being social, and all whilst trying to eat three square meals a day. Our elected representatives are just students, but the policies they propose should be meaningful, aspirational and, most importantly, practical.
Image: dun_deagh via Flickr