A picture of the Radcam to accompany a feature on the embattled Oxford SU
Credit: Tejvan Pettinger

What can the SU do?

This year, I did something that less than a fifth of Oxford students do; I voted in the SU elections. I also did something that practically no one seems to do; I actually followed the SU elections.

Starting in week two, I asked people I knew which candidates had indicated they were going to run, what their platforms would be, and why they were running. And, dear reader, it was one of the more confusing experiences of my life. Why did every candidate in the race seem to be promising a reading week referendum, with the results swiftly implemented on a university-wide level? Why did every candidate seem to say without saying (or just saying) that the SU did nothing or wasn’t efficient, or was broken, and their plans could fix it? Why did every candidate seem to promise a silver bullet to fix the fractiousness and division that exists at almost every level in Oxford college provision, manifest from sexual harassment claims to rent pricing?

What’s worse is when you consider how long these SU campaign ‘promises’ have been made to unsuspecting students. The current president Danial Hussain, who was recently suspended for months after sharing porn with SU staff, ran on a promise to make an Oxford “that works for everyone”. His campaign had such pledges as the reduction of inter-collegiate financial disparities, a compiling of rent and sustainability data, and – you guessed it – the promise of a reading week. It’s genuinely baffling why no one votes in these elections, given that they seem to offer a panacea to the complaints students have about Oxford in a little under a year. Oh, wait, that might not actually be happening?

Year in, year out, the promise of fixing disparity, making an Oxford that works for everyone, and introducing new measures to address mental health and other serious issues is dangled temptingly before the student body, only for it to disappear in a puff of smoke.

Year in, year out, the promise of fixing disparity, making an Oxford that works for everyone, and introducing new measures to address mental health and other serious issues is dangled temptingly before the student body, only for it to disappear in a puff of smoke. That’s when you might begin to sympathise with the campaign of someone like Q Sun, who ran on a manifesto that argues “the University and the SU are currently running just fine without anyone fulfilling the role of SU President. How about we leave the SU President role empty next year and contribute the £27,181 salary to something else?”

In the pursuit of fairness, I’d like to offer a correction to the narrative that the SU ‘does nothing’. The SU definitely does do things. It funds ten student-run campaigns that address critical issues for students, including issues of racial disparity, sexual assault, and LGBTQ+ rights. In this academic year, it has a £1.1 million budget and more than 10 full-time staff working to represent students. It provides the facilities for Freshers’ Fair, and facilitates a student’s first view into the wide array of student societies that exist at this University. It provides welfare resources to colleges, JCRs, and MCRs.

Joel Aston and Bella Done, current co-presidents of the LGBTQ+ campaign, spoke with me about some of the work they do that is facilitated by the SU. Aston stated that campaigns come to be because of institutional inequalities or difficulties, with students deciding to do something about it. They can operate, they argue, to address some of the inequalities that are inherent to Oxford, with Aston referring to the Oxford experience as one of “fractions”. The system is highly decentralised, with a central University existing, but colleges, departments, and other institutions all having their own way of functioning.

Campaigns can operate […] to address some of the inequalities that are inherent to Oxford, with Aston referring to the Oxford experience as one of “fractions”.

Aston and Done have both worked to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students in several ways. One such way is a Trans Day of Remembrance, which Done called a “healing process” in our conversation; another example is their LGBTQ+ open mic night at the Jolly Farmers. The third, and perhaps the most significant, has been the increasingly widespread adoption of Gender Expression Funds. The funds allow students who feel distress over their gender identity and appearance to purchase items that affirm their gender, but that they wouldn’t be able to access without that money. There are many beyond this, such as the campaign’s Safer Churches report, which highlights faith spaces that are accepting towards trans students.

Campaigns, however, operate with limited resources. The LGBTQ+ campaign operates on a £250 annual budget, and the situation is similar for all other campaigns. However, Aston and Done have worked over the last year to ensure more flexibility if they find themselves over-budget, with between £800 and £1000 available. Oxford’s short “institutional memory” also presents a significant challenge, in that the strategies and lessons learnt by the campaign over the last year have to be passed on to a new committee. Quick turnover complicates lobbying for change, as it becomes harder and harder to build relationships with University changemakers.

Towards the end of our conversation, both highlighted the critical importance of the SU campaigns. Done highlighted how DisCam, existing to address provision for disability support across the years, worked hard over time to get lecture videos online for all disabled students. They state that while “no activism is perfect and the University is really slow”, the “student body moves quickly” to get things done, and the campaigns exist as a mechanism to facilitate change. Both people want students to realise the critical role activism plays in facilitating better outcomes for students.

The campaign’s impact over the last year is a definite success story, alongside a host of improvements that the LGBTQ+ community at Oxford has facilitated over the last year. Why, then, don’t I feel able to quickly rattle off the ways that the SU has materially impacted my life?

With its million pound budget, over a dozen paid, full-time staff, a two-story building, and access to the University that nobody else has, it has significant potential to offer value for students. 

Speaking with Addi Haran Diman, the current President-elect of the SU, offered some insights. Diman said that there is a “very fair antagonism towards the SU”, but that it has “a lot of potential”. With its million pound budget, over a dozen paid, full-time staff, a two-story building, and access to the University that nobody else has, it has significant potential to offer value for students. 

And yet, students identify common rooms, colleges, and societies as being the main providers of value for students. Diman says that a lot of the SU’s work is “advocacy behind the scenes”, but concedes that its impact is nowhere near widespread enough. Instead, a significant amount of its work goes towards activism and meeting with university staff, as opposed to providing information or resources, running social events, funding societies and sports clubs.

This being said, Diman says that “SU staff work really hard […] and are often not thanked enough”. However, they argue that “institutionally, a lot of money does go to staff intensive work that students don’t see as much benefit from as direct support.” While they do argue that the SU does face difficulty working at a collegiate university, other SUs like Durham and Cambridge do “fantastic” work and are highly “vibrant”.

Their framework to fix the SU is to focus on “what works, what matters, and what has potential”. What “works” for Diman is societies and common rooms, which “[do] so much work”. Specifically, they point to the LGBTQ society’s work with a c. £20,000 budget provided 300 events a year with only volunteers, with common rooms providing similar provisions. That, Diman argues, is where students get their value, and she argues for a refocusing of SU resources into those proven structures, as opposed to an SU that she believes focuses on “petty politics and symbolic gestures, and activism that doesn’t really provide results.”

Diman is at pains to emphasise that “activism is really important”. However, she views a lot of current student activism as not achieving “tangible results”, and not ensuring that issues regarding college disparities, welfare, and other issues are not being properly addressed. The campaigns, though, are what “has potential” in her view, despite being underfunded and under-resourced, as well as struggling somewhat with talent retention over time.

Diman herself has navigated that activism; these viewpoints do not come from thin air. She negotiated at the university level to achieve significant reforms for trans students, including changes in self-service to accommodate pronoun choices, as well as a public apology for not providing enough support to the community. She identifies this activism as having worked, but also worked constructively to achieve those and other policy changes. She wants to bring that experience to the SU president role.

Diman is careful to emphasise that they don’t view staff or campaigns individually as part of the problem, while discussing the SU budget as money that “should be going to students and not disappearing in the black hole.”

What’s confusing is that Diman is careful to emphasise that they don’t view staff or campaigns individually as part of the problem, while discussing the SU budget as money that “should be going to students and not disappearing in the black hole.” While a “black hole” could be a testament to the SU’s powerful ability to attract people, I suspect that Diman meant it in the sense that at least some of the SU’s £1.1m budget goes to waste. What complicates this even more is that Diman made some of the exact same promises that every other candidate has made, ones that we know are not realistic or achievable because time and time again, they haven’t happened.

Diman promises to create an SU that “can achieve things”, and can shake off longstanding cynicism surrounding it. She feels optimistic about its future, and after speaking with her, I feel something like that creeping over me. But it’s not clear to me that Diman will actually be at all different of the SU presidents past. It seems clear to me that a year from now, following the SU elections will be another exercise in futility.