Twats. That’s how a friend summed up his opinion of our college JCR committee. This was a shame, as I’d just been elected to it. But I could see his point; our supposed representatives seemed at times to exemplify the worst examples of student politics; petty, prancing and overwhelmingly pointless at the same time.
Yet secretly I was quite happy my companion had an opinion on us at all; because precious few in college know or care what we’re up to. Despite free food and the bareness of Sunday evening in Oxford, our general meetings have as much atmosphere as a graveyard. Some colleges have the opposite problem; their JCRs have become something of a running joke. From bizarre naked videos to the election of teddy bears and kebab-van owners, JCRs hardly help themselves to be taken seriously. What could possibly justify the acquisition of a £500 bust of ex-Brasenose President Paul Gladwell? While oversized egos are two for a penny in Oxford, it tars the rest of us with this brush; we’re derided as CV-hunting hacks, but without the balls to go for OUSU or the Union.
It’s here the fun ends; because we actually need JCRs a lot more then we’d dare admit. Many arrive in Oxford with the naive assumption that college will be on their side. Yet college authorities can be extraordinarily brutal in their treatment of undergraduates when they feel their academic and financial plans are being threatened. My own college, advertising itself as ‘modern’ and ‘informal’ summarily dismissed an international student who was unfortunate enough to end up in hospital during Freshers’ Week. They knew that the student, struggling simply to find a place to live, would lack the resources and knowledge to launch an appeal. Oxford students know this attitude all too well; it’s paternalistic and patronising, resulting from a deeply hierarchical educational tradition.
Even when good intentions abound, JCRs are essential for protecting students from natural conflicts of interest. Take for instance rent negotiations. University accommodation in Oxford is among the highest in the country; and every year colleges attempt to push them further, with Exeter students were faced with a rise of more than £300 this year. Colleges unsurprisingly want to expand and improve, with the extra rent going towards libraries and lecture theatres. It takes a JCR to point out that students may suffer more from increased costs then they will gain in their academic experience.
These conflicts aren’t just going to go away; as funding dries we can expect them to intensify, and in the new marketised system JCRs will be more important than ever before. With its reputation, the university has enormous bargaining power, while we have only the vague consumer rights promised in the government’s White Paper. Far from debating room allocation or BYOB for Formals, JCRs will be fighting just so we can afford to go here at all. It’s clearly going to require a bit of a step-up; the egotistical petty squabbles and token motions will have to give way to something a bit more determined and professional; and the culture of CV-loading must end. But wannabe politicos need not worry; the reforms will transform what was a political backwater into the frontline of student activism.
Fifty years ago the undergraduates of my college weren’t allowed out after 9pm. Without proper representation it’s not inconceivable we could go back to those days, except we’ll be paying through the nose for the privilege. So if you care about your university experience, get down to your JCR right away. You can’t afford not to.
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