What’s wrong with the Oxford SU? Student Union Debate


Image Description: Bridge of Sighs

I was on the phone to my GP surgery the other day, when I was asked what college I went to. Apparently, some colleges run triage clinics that might allow me to get seen by a medical professional quicker. More generally, Colleges are the focal point for the fundamentals of student life. When I’m hungry, I go eat in hall, and when I’m sleepy, I go sleep in College accommodation. All my teaching is organised by my college, and so are my collections. Which college you go to might not matter all that much, but the fact that you go to one certainly does.

All this leads many new students to ask what exactly the central University even does. As far as I can tell, it sets exams, and then, from time to time, issues new guidelines to stop the more eccentric Colleges deviating too far from some vaguely defined norm. In other words, not much. The University deliberately avoids emphatically impressing its desires upon Colleges, tending to favour academic freedom and competition between Colleges, tutors, and students, over centralised standardisation.

With this in mind, it is reasonable to question the need for a University-wide Student Union. If the central University does not do much, what is there to do for a central representative body of students? According to the Oxford SU’s budget sheet, quite a lot.

The Oxford SU spent over £1.1 million in 2018, the most recently published ex-post Accounts. And yet, there is still a widespread sense amongst students that the Oxford SU does not really do much.

In the 2016 National Student Survey, only 34% of Oxford students said they were satisfied with their Student Union, placing Oxford an impressive 370th out of the 382 listed institutions. (You may ask why I am using such old data. Fortunately, every year since 2016 the Oxford SU has successfully run a campaign to boycott the National Student Survey).

One cause of this might be what the Oxford SU spends its budget on. In 2018, £633,001 was spent paying for the Student Union’s 30 members of staff, amounting to 53% of the Student Union’s overall budget, a decrease upon the previous year’s 57%. Meanwhile, Exeter spent 35% of its total budget on staff in 2018, Durham spent 36%, and Imperial spent 33%. Across the board, the Oxford SU spends about 1.5 times as much of its total spending on staff than other Student Unions.

This is because the Oxford SU spends most of its time (and so money paying people for their time) on staff-intensive work, like activism, meeting with University staff, and providing informational resources, rather than running social events, funding societies and sports clubs, and providing cheap booze. In the Oxford SU’s 2021-2022 Welcome Guide leaflet, two of their highlighted aims for this year are to make our curriculums more diverse and focused on the environment; one is to help Oxford’s homeless population; and the remaining six are aimed at improving student welfare, including instating welfare-orientated workload limits. These aims seek to indirectly improve the student experience at Oxford by changing University policies, and so are contingent upon the goodwill of University staff. This means much effort may be devoted to causes without results. Last year’s Oxford SU President, for instance, self-professedly was spending 80% of her time on the Race Equality task force (which met once a month) to compile a list of recommendations to University staff, which I’m sure has been taken on board with great vigour.

There are, of course, some events and services directly provided by the Oxford SU. They run the Fresher’s Fair, provide assistance to students searching for accommodation and jobs, and you can book functions rooms. Aside from the Fresher’s Fair, however, I would question the extent to which these services are used by students. We have an excellent Career’s Service to look for jobs, most Colleges have plenty of space to hold meetings, and the only help I’ve needed searching for accommodation has been from my own JCR’s Housing Committee. The Oxford SU appears to implicitly recognise at least one of these facts – its own Student Jobs List section on its website presently lists a grand total of 0 jobs.

A rebalancing of the Oxford SU’s priorities, then, seems to be in order. To maintain focus on deliverable, actionable, and impactful benefits to Oxford’s students, in light of the difficulties presented by Oxford’s collegiate system for a University-wide Student Union.

Without this focused purpose, the Student Union’s activities will continue to reflect the latent idealistic tendency of students to try and change the world, with little regard for the effectiveness of their efforts, so long as they are well-intentioned. This is not a quip at Sabbatical Officers themselves, but a broader point about what would-be student voters are likely to look for when deciding who to vote for in Student Union elections.

One constitutional remedy I would advocate for is an increase in the scrutiny powers of the Student Council, which is made up of College JCR and divisional representatives. Specifically, to make all but absolutely essential spending of the Student Union subject to votes in the Student Council, which would be able to accept or reject spending proposals. This could be done at the beginning of each new President’s tenure, or on a termly basis, with supplementary meetings when necessary to amend proposals. This should also apply to all vacant, and new, staffing positions, and to existing electable Sabbatical posts (which cost over £20,000 a year) at the end of each officer’s tenure, just before new elections are held. This way, no one would be made redundant, and yet the student body could increasingly exercise greater control over the way its Student Union runs.

Leftover money should then be distributed to subsidise student activities. Despite being the primary providers of student activities, this should not be given to Colleges, since (most) are not lacking in their endowments. Societies, on the other hand, are often privately funded by the students who join them, and for the most part do not have substantial reserves. These costs put off Oxford’s financially disadvantaged students from joining societies, and detract from the fraternal atmosphere that should permeate University-life. Surplus funds would be allocated on the basis of factors including need and membership size.

Not only would this in itself provide meaningful, actionable benefits to the student body, but it would also force the Oxford SU to keep in mind the benefits forgone of any spending, which the Student Council could always re-allocate to student societies. This would go some way to delivering the Oxford SU’s expressed purpose: “to improve the overall experience for current and future students at the University of Oxford”.

Image Credit: Vasu Jagannathan @Flick.com


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