Are university student union elections democratic?

My University has just had its Student Leader elections, where we elected our Student Union Executive, a group of students who take a year-long sabbatical in order to take up their paid positions before returning to their courses afterwards. Is the whole process democratic or even legitimate though? I’ll be commenting on the process at my university, Nottingham, so feel free to comment with any experiences at your universities.

My university proudly announced after the polls had closed that with over 10,000 votes, we had the second highest turnout for this year’s student union elections out of all universities across the UK. That sounds impressive, but our university has about 40,000 students, probably a lot more if we count any postgraduates, who were eligible to vote as they are still members of the Union. How can these elections be legitimate if less than a quarter of the people the Union represents voted? My department, Politics and International Relations, had the highest turnout of all the departments, but even then, it was only around 50%.

The university with the highest turnout year on year is Warwick. I have a friend there and I ‘unfortunately’ visited during their elections week. They have the highest turnout because they have a rule where if more than 10% of the electorate don’t turn out, they have to re-do the election. Their campaigning process was also different to my experience at Nottingham. The candidates were a lot more ‘forceful’. One evening, we had a knock on the door, my friend shouted to ask if they were a candidate, they reluctantly said yes so my friends decided to not open the door. After a while, they gave up and just pushed a few leaflets through the letterbox.

My friend commented that it was annoying how seriously some of the candidates took their jobs and especially as first year who haven’t experienced university properly yet or had any education that counted (the first year rarely counts towards the final degree class in most UK universities), they simply didn’t care that much about how was on the committee. Is this representative of most students? A female was elected President for the first time in over a decade at my university and after her win, I scoured the social networks. There were shockingly a few comments where people suggested they voted for females simply to have someone pretty to look at on our committee. I asked my friends in between lectures and I think in general, a lot of people weren’t particularly bothered about who was on the committee.

After further investigation, I don’t really think it matters who is on my university’s committee anyway. One candidate gave a shoutout during a lecture and outlined his main policy as fighting the Council’s proposal to force the student population to live in the city centre and not in suburbs near the university where we can cause a nuisance to neighbours. This policy caught my eye and would have made me vote for him. But if you go on the elections section of our union website, there are job specifications for each position and under President, it says that they would work with the university to stop the proposal. There are set policies that each person would work with the union on. So if all candidates are expected to follow a set number of policies, there isn’t a lot to separate the candidates and therefore it turns into more of a popularity/personality contest.

All candidates are allowed a set budget for campaign expenses, so it’s a matter of who had the best campaign or simply did the most campaigning. A redeeming feature of the elections was that they were run using the Single Transferable Vote, an electoral system arguably much more proportionate and democratic than the First Past The Post used for our national elections.

Overall, I think, at my university at least, elections aren’t particularly legitimate or democratic, simply because people don’t think what the Union does really affects them, and if there isn’t much to distinguish between candidates due to the Union setting out their main policies, then does it really matter who gets the job? I’m not sure what exactly could alleviate the situation. Would giving candidates more scope with their policies actually help? They are only in office for an academic year so would not have enough time to go through with a radical policy. There is also the problem of continuity, changing over personnel every year could mean a ‘ping-pong’ between how the Union operates, also increasing how long you hold the position for would be impractical since the majority of us are at university for three years and our main reason for being there is to study, not lead the Union. So giving the executive more power might do more harm than good. I definitely think that increasing education and engaging students could help increase turnout and make student union elections as democratic and legitimate as they can be.

3 responses to “Are university student union elections democratic?”

  1. I agree with all of this- the winner is simply the person who can build the most effective and wide-reaching electoral ‘machine’. Candidate’s policies are vague, deliberately uncontroversial and so similar that policies are practically irrelevant to who wins. Though perhaps you could say this is the same for real politics!

  2. Revo Bro says:

    Nottingham has a student population of around 34,000 – not including its China and Malaysia campuses which don’t vote in that election. 

    The winners of Students’ Union elections don’t just sit on a University committee – they are responsible for a year for the running and management of a multi million pound company in the form of your Students’ Union. Policies can be mandated for your sabbatical officers to undertake by the rest of the student body and that’s part of what makes it democratic, but officers also run on the conviction to make change happen. Student Union officers are incredibly powerful and often sit on the most senior committees in the University as well has having the ability to make change throughout the University structure.

  3. Revo Bro says:

    Also, most Unions will have a staff team which ensures continuity between officers, like any other elected official you will have your civil servants and your political leaders.

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