OUSU’s recent polling disaster distracts from the real issue

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Thousands of Freshers are being welcomed to Oxford right now, many of whom are bound to be a little bit uncomfortable with the news that OUSU has just been awarded the dubious distinction of being the ‘least popular’ student union in the country. That’s impressively bad.

While this recent indictment is likely to result in yet more OUSU-bashing, perhaps it should trigger a slightly more measured assessment of what OUSU really means to the student body and why it’s quite literally the single worst performing student union in the country. Out of touch and distant as it may be, I think it’s fairly unlikely that you’d be able to find too many students who actually believe that it’s the single most incompetent student union in the country.

Without putting too fine a point on it, such surveys have more problems than swiss cheese has holes. For starters, having had a look at the actual survey used, the sole question that addresses satisfaction with the students’ unions is the last question: “I am satisfied with the Students’ Union (Association or Guild) at my institution”. Respondents could pick from one of six options based on how strongly they agreed (or disagreed) with the proposition. The lack of actual criteria for evaluation is just one of the long list of glaringly obvious inadequacies of the NSS survey. Not to mention that the only concept most students will have (if they have any at all) of what to expect from a student union is their experience with their own. The question as it was framed is therefore fairly pointless.

Gerard Tully, President of the student union at The Other Place, made a valid point when he highlighted the fact that student unions at collegiate universities are at an inherent disadvantage with students naturally (and understandably) more likely to turn to college JCRs for representation than a body that is charged with representing the views of tens of thousands of students. This makes sense, especially when one considers the fact that most JCRs are almost entirely responsible for all their members’ welfare and alcohol requirements. It’s really no surprise that the student unions of York, Cambridge and Durham didn’t fare so well either.

Even the relatively limited engagement with OUSU that takes the form of re-affiliation debates, an annual feature of many JCRs and MCRs, has been rendered largely meaningless ever since OUSU affiliation fees were waived in March 2010. Bearing all of this in mind, if the NSS survey tells us anything at all, it’s that not only is OUSU out of touch but that it’s almost on the verge of irrelevance. While this might constitute legitimate ground for dissatisfaction, it’s not quite synonymous with the spectacular incompetence that the survey suggests.

David Townsend’s response to the survey was surprisingly sensible, well at least if you’re being slightly charitable and willing to read between the lines a little bit. To his credit, he didn’t respond with a spiel on just how much OUSU has managed to achieve in recent years. At least for the most part.

“OUSU has difficulties with student engagement, and the NSS score reflects that… There are some things about Oxford that won’t be changing any time soon, such as the decentralised collegiate structure and the lack of a central Student Union venue, but OUSU can’t blame these idiosyncrasies for all of its problems.

Where students have interacted with OUSU and know what it does, the numbers are overwhelmingly positive, so it’s clear that OUSU has to get better at communicating what it does and at supporting students’ Departmental representatives, as you would expect of a Student Union at any other university.”

While “overwhelmingly positive” might be a tad ironic in the context of “where students have interacted with OUSU and know what it does”, it does highlight what seems to be the basic problem here. What OUSU desperately needs is to find a raison d’être to stop its descent into effective oblivion. With parallel structures such as Prescom and given the substantial financial resources enjoyed by many JCRs, it’s clear that OUSU can’t just focus on the more traditional roles of a student union. What they should be focusing on instead is perhaps a conversation that’s a little bit more urgent than yet another tirade on just how god-awful and ineffective OUSU is.

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