I can proudly claim to be one of approximately 30 people who had little enough going on to attend the Student Council meeting on 27 February (a real achievement, I know). These are forums where the Sabbatical Officers give a report on what they have achieved over the last month and which allow the student body and various student representatives to submit motions, ask questions of the Sabbatical Officers and which theoretically allow us to hold our representatives to account. For reference, the Student Council meeting in January is where the infamous ‘beef ban’ was initially raised.
So here I was, being nosy, munching away on my complimentary biscuit and slurping my complimentary coffee (two very good reasons to attend, in of themselves), when two motions were brought forward appealing for funding from EUSA’s campaigns budget; one asking for a supplementary £250 to support the UCU industrial action (on top of a sum of £750 which was approved during the last round of strikes – only £270.20 of which was spent), and a request for £375 for specialist noise-cancelling hearing aids to be used by societies with members who are very sensitive to sound. I’ll confess, I was quite sceptical of these requests at first, ‘that’s an awful lot of money’ I thought, ‘is it really something we can afford? Surely there are other campaigns which affect larger proportions of the student body which really need that kind of funding?’
The answer to my question, it turns out, is no. Edinburgh University Students Association has a campaign budget of £3,000 every academic year. According to what we were told, at the time of the meeting they have only spent £270.20 in total over the entire year. £270.20, with two months to spare. The two motions mentioned above passed with overwhelming support, meaning the campaign budget now theoretically sits at £2154.18. The Student Council is supposed to represent the interests of the student body, do we not have any interests? Is there a shortage of good causes? Is everything cushty?
Perhaps the issue really is that people don’t seem to care. Perhaps we are simply not aware that this a possibility because barely any of us bother to go to these meetings and therefore remain unaware of the options open to us. Attendance at these Student Council meetings is pathetic. 30-odd people out of 40,000 students and staff – we should be ashamed. We are happy to sit and complain about the university, about EUSA, about lack of support, about lack of housing, about any one of a worryingly long list of issues which plague this university and the students, us, who make it what it is. But very few seem prepared to actually do anything about it. I won’t lie to you; these meetings are usually drier than the Sahara Desert but they’re important. ‘It’s boring’ wasn’t a valid excuse when we were five, why would it be now?
The student body has a duty to attend these meetings. The issues raised here affect us. Student Council is only mentioned every few months when something controversial happens. This time it was the ‘beef ban’. Last year it was the threats to shut down the KB bus service. We cannot keep responding to these motions after they have happened. Over 6,000 people ended up voting in the online referendum about the ‘beef ban’ which wasn’t actually a beef ban. Does anyone know what the result was? Did any of us check to see the progress of the ballot? Or did we get pissy for a few minutes, scrabble around EUSA’s quite frankly obtuse website to find the button which would let us really stick it to those dirty meat-eaters/vegans (delete as appropriate) and then forget about it?
Democracy is not a part time affair, why should student democracy be any different? We as a student body need to show up, and put a bit more effort in. Look at it as practice for the future: when power is left unchecked (piddly though EUSA’s power is) bad things inevitably happen. We should be at these meetings holding the Student’s Association to account, hauling them over the coals for their mistakes. Scrutinising everything that they do… And taking pride in their successes – their successes are our successes, as much as their failures are our failures. This organisation is supposed to represent us yet most of us don’t know what they do. Most of us don’t know who they are. Most of us know fuck all about them. Everything EUSA does, it does in our name, and we need to be a damn sight better.
What makes this all the more frustrating is knowing that the campaigns budget has done a remarkable amount of good in its time. When I first started looking into this, I believed EUSA was wholly the problem, but it turns out that even I can be wrong (note that EUSA is still partially to blame, they’re not getting off that easily). The reason that so little has been spent this year is that hardly any requests have been made for funding. The overarching issue here is that we as a student body appear not to be committed enough to get involved in this civic aspect of our university life.
Last year the entire budget was allocated. The money may not all have been used – as was the case in November last year – but it was at least requested and directed towards causes championed by the student body. In previous years this budget has been used to ensure student voices are heard in local elections, to support multiple rounds of UCU industrial action, to provide material support to minority groups within the student body and to defend the interests of our friends and course-mates who have come to us from the EU and the rest of the world and who contribute so much to our student experience. And right now, we are wasting it.
You may not agree with all of these uses and there are certainly others which I struggle to rationalise but if we are not there, if we don’t offer our opinions and suggestions in this forum designed solely for us to do exactly that, then we don’t get to comment on whether it was a good use or not. We can’t keep shouting from the side-lines or whinging to our pals and expecting that to miraculously achieve something. At a time when the University is all too eager to make cuts, we should not be advertising that the student council can do just fine with £300 instead of £3000. To hark back to my initial (and indeed misplaced) scepticism of those hearing aids; this is money that can be used to help support students who otherwise would not be able to get involved with societies. This is money that can be used to improve the university experience for us all and it is being wasted. There is only one student council meeting remaining this year: 26th March, 6pm, the Pleasance. I hope to some of you there.
Image: Daha via Wikimedia Commons