YUSU is not a fundamentally bad organisation, but neither is it currently a good one. It provides an invaluable service in support for societies, colleges and sports, yet it is plainly clear that students are not happy with the Union.
A lack of nimble communications, an institutional structure that fails to reach out to groups across the University, and a focus on issues that many students feel their Union has no place in dealing with all contribute to a feeling that, to quote Yorfess, YUSU should “function for students or be dissolved.” While Sabbs work hard to do their best for the Union, the current policy process hampers their effectiveness and ensures that it is difficult to establish a clear line of accountability between policy outcomes and those implementing them.
There will come a point in the next few years where York students will have to make a choice. Do they want their Union to be an apolitical body focused locally in York, or do they want a representative on the national stage espousing views on national issues? I strongly believe that taking stances on divisive national issues, such as Brexit, hurts the Union-student relationship and ultimately contributes to a feeling that YUSU is not focusing on what students want.
The excellent #Bustice campaign is a brilliant example of how a local issue that genuinely affects students in the here and now can be weaponised by a determined Sabb team to achieve political change. The reaction to this campaign has been hugely positive even from the hardiest of YUSU-sceptics. Even if the Union believes that Brexit will affect its members (either positively or negatively) it having a stance on it will not materially change the circumstances of those affected students. Their stance is simply petty posturing, distracting from the very real problems students are facing at York.
One step to rebuilding that Union-student relationship could be to have a more adversarial relationship with the University, for example possibly supporting student compensation for lost teaching time due to strikes. That would be hugely popular among the student body and this philosophy could even extend to further ‘open goals’ such as the building of a University app or opening a proper Union bar. This is how YUSU making its decisions through the current policy process becomes an issue.
The referendum is emblematic of this problem. Any student can submit a policy proposal (which is, no doubt, a good thing) however, instead of the popularly known Sabbs scrutinising this proposal, it is instead the Policy Review Group (PRG) who decide on what policy is adopted, thrown out and what is put to a referendum. This group is barely known across the University, yet it is instrumental in crucial decisions such as this. That 2.5 per cent of the student population can pass a referendum motion is ludicrous; in a university of 20 000 just 500 can dictate a major policy shift. It is not the Sabb team that decide on whether or not to move forward with a referendum; it is the PRG. This fundamental disconnect between who students think make the decisions at YUSU and who actually does must be fixed if students are to trust their Union again. Elected, publicly-facing Sabbs must be empowered to make decisions on all aspects of their Union.
The Union cannot only look inwards if it wants to resolve wide-spread student discontent. Folding the PRG and adopting an Executive Council model comprised of representatives from colleges, societies and sports teams who could legislate and scrutinise policy submissions would draw into the policy process people who are passionate about their university to the extent that they’ve stood for an elected role. This will also increase the diversity of voices included in the process.
As a College Chair, I am far better placed to know what the students of James want from their Union simply via close social interaction, as is the President of Law Soc for Law students or the Captain of the University Football team for football players, than YUSU is, which has to manage some 20 000 students. Incorporating these bodies into the policy process will also mean that a lot of the debate around policy that often happens outside of YUSU, manifesting itself in angry group chats or rude hearsay, will be brought inside and properly scrutinised, potentially translating that immense passion into genuine change. The collegiate system is what differentiates York from the grey mass of other universities in Britain: it is its USP. It is time they stood up and be counted in the policy process.
YUSU can’t just stick its fingers in its ears anymore when it comes to communication: it needs to be more nimble and responsive to student concerns. Pages like Yorfess should not be dismissed as barmy YUSU-sceptic trash; when posts complaining about the Union are garnering hundreds of likes, YUSU should sit up and take note, even if it thinks no valid point has been made.
Unelected YUSU executives can no longer pass the buck. They must start to take responsibility for all areas of the Union, simultaneously extolling their own virtues when they do something well, like #Bustice, but also conceding ground when errors are made and promising to learn from their mistakes. The regular social media updates Sabbs are doing currently are helping, and a University-wide council would aid too, but public perception of YUSU is still so poor that a drastic change is clearly needed.
YUSU should be reviewing its policy process with the utmost urgency if it wants to escape a RON campaign that has all the momentum going into the election. Prospective Presidents would do well not to ignore the anger surrounding how YUSU makes decisions and be tailoring their manifestos to it. The Union must be more open to listening, changing and reacting to events. It must get back to basics and rep-resent its students once again.