Bradley Allsop talks briefly about the QUBSU elections and the challenges that lie ahead for QUB students and the new SU team.
The Queen’s University Students’ Union elections are finally over, with a new team elected and bins in the area overflowing with election paraphernalia as senior management nervously await the next occupation. We have had tickets and ‘not-quite-tickets’, nationally recognised music videos and a surprisingly (some would say disappointingly) calm poster day. But what were the highlights, what do the results mean for Queens, and what are the challenges ahead for the incoming sabbatical team?
A bizarre feature of this year’s election was the resentment of candidates running for an uncontested position. Of course, in the interests of democracy and general engagement with the SU, we all want a good selection of candidates for each position, but it seems counter-productive to punish the candidates who are running for the fact that no one else is- proudly voting RON to stick up a finger to the candidate that is clearly more willing to do something for students that yourself doesn’t really help anyone.
Some chose to focus their ire on the quality, rather than the quantity, of candidates. We had reminiscing rambles about Pirates in the Tab, with the bastion of nuanced debate publishing a piece that poured scorn on candidates that were actually serious and genuine about wanting to effect change and fight for students. Similar sentiments were espoused by some of the more ‘nefarious’ candidates themselves, suggesting that many in the elections were too ‘serious’ and that harping on about fees and course closures was dull and unwinnable and that we should just try and be more ‘fun’ instead. We also had thinly veiled sectarianism from commentators in the Gown (the only opinion piece they published all election) claiming that the presidential candidate was one that would not be able to ‘unite the student body’.
Indeed this all coalesced into a general narrative of an ‘apathetic’ student body, propagated by a student media hopelessly unaware of the self-condemnation implicit in such pronouncements (surely media outlets are at least in part responsible for engaging and enthusing the student body?) Watching from afar it would be easy to get the impression that we had a very small crop of unengaging candidates preaching a dull message to an uninterested student body.
Fortunately the naysayers were hideously wrong. We have now witnessed the largest turnout in election-history at Queen’s and, far from the days of swash-buckling pirates galloping around the SU and promises of cannons on the rooftops, the gimmicky, self-styled ‘anti-establishment’ candidate obtained a mere quarter of the votes of the more ‘serious’ SU hack. Education originally had 3 candidates running for it until 2 of them pulled out at the last minute (including the present author), and whilst all the focus appeared to be on the uncontested President job, welfare had 4 incredible candidates gunning for it too. This is not to say that there are not huge hurdles to leap in regards to student engagement and empowerment, but it’s certainly a step further in the right direction than the pessimists would have had you believe possible last week.
The election of Sean Fearon to the role of president is an important moment for the Students’ Union. Sean’s uncompromising stance on free higher education, grassroots democracy and staunch opposition to the marketisation of higher education come as a direct challenge to the path senior management at Queen’s are following, and he now has a team behind him broadly sharing his views. This has come at a crucial time, when key decisions regarding the future of higher education both in Northern Ireland and the UK in general are going to be decided.
In the past year we have been given an ugly glimpse of a route Queen’s could head down, and have now just elected, quite literally, to go another way. We have heard talk this year from Patrick Johnson, Vice Chancellor at Queen’s, of the potential of ‘raising tuition fees’ to cope with budgetary cuts. Yet a recent FOI request has revealed that the cuts made by the VC and his team are actually double the amount required by the reduced funding from Stormont, and are justified by Queen’s as forming part of their ‘corporate vision’. Schools are merging, some courses are threatened with closure, staff are losing their jobs and those that remain have ludicrous expectations for obtaining funding hoisted upon them.
When Fossil Free QUB (including two of those just elected) marched into the administration building with our sleeping bags and some flapjacks at the end of last term, we did so to get Queen’s to divest from fossil fuels yes, but it was about more than that too. It was about showing Queen’s and higher education institutions in general that students were the ones that held the power in universities, not the handful of corporate types at the top. It was to show that student politics is not the naïve, or even non-existent force it is often claimed to be, but a real avenue of progressive social change. It was to show that students care, and are willing to do what they have to to secure the change that is needed. That occupation was the start, not the end of a fight, where Sean and other key students at Queen’s signalled to the university that they had an uphill struggle on their hands if they continued to run roughshod over our futures, a fight in which another victory has been won by the result of these elections.
The lessons learnt from that occupation will be important for the newly elected team going forward. True, not all of those that were elected on Thursday night have much experience of activism, or even of the SU, but together they bring a useful and diverse set of skills and backgrounds to the team, something that can only help when it comes to engaging more students in the work of the Students’ Union at this most crucial of times- balancing the need to reach a wider group of students with the need for experienced and capable activists and organisers.
Key to the coming fight is the ability to unite the student body and convince them that their actions can make a difference, neither of which is an easy task, especially in Northern Ireland. Sean and the team have proven their ability to do this with the incredible turnout this year, Sean’s massively increased amount of votes and the diversity of the members in SU campaigns this year- students uniting across communities and even seas to fight for progressive change. The attention Fossil Free QUB has garnered and the success of Campaign SU this year has already begun to reignite activism at Queen’s- it will be the job of the incoming team to nurture this flame and help it spread.
There is a tough fight ahead against rising fees and plummeting support, but the only real obstacle one can see now is the lethargy of the pessimists. This is why serious candidates that understand the monumental task ahead and have tangible ideas on how to approach it win over the ‘fun’ and ‘quirkiness’ favoured by Tab commentators. The fight is well and truly on.