Laura Clayson: reflections on a term as LUSU President

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Throughout my time as an undergraduate I was engaged with politics and activism outside of the Union structures, and so my motivation in running for the position was an interest in exploring how possible it would be to effect change from the inside.

I stood for election because I genuinely care about the rights of students and am passionate about transforming what I perceive to be unjust circumstances. The encouragement of friends and lecturers spurred me on and I hoped that I could fulfil their expectations when I took office. One thing I can say without doubt is that from an outsider’s perspective it is certainly easier to criticise the actions of elected officers when you are not the one trying to transform things from within.

Being part of a passionate and committed full time officer team who were determined to be political and take a stand on issues, I felt empowered. As a team we marched for Free Education in London. We supported our VP (Education) whilst he organised a very successful political conference called ‘Assembly for Change’ at which Natalie Bennett, Owen Jones and Peter Tatchell amongst others spoke. We supported our VP (Welfare and Community) while she successfully lobbied the University to sign the Time to Change pledge (an initiative to tackle mental health discrimination) and to provide bursaries for students who had left care. We supported students in their campaign for the adoption of an Ethical Investment Policy and started to explore the potential for utilising participatory budgeting as a way to allocate financial resources and to get the University to seriously consider the cost of rent on campus. Politically, we were taking a stance in areas much less “vanilla” than previous years.

I spent a lot of my first term trying to get my head around everything, trying to navigate the structures of an extremely complex, bureaucratic institution, and working in a way that was completely unsustainable for both my body and my mind, burning myself out at a rate that wasn’t ideal for me or the students I represented. I struggled to hold everything together, placing on myself unnecessary pressure and standards of perfection – trying to read every single meeting’s papers in their entirety (Union and University combined I sit on 31) going to bed at ridiculous hours as a consequence and finding it hard to have any motivation to get out of bed the next day. Had this have been all that going on in my life I would have been able to cope, but all of this was happening in the context of some very difficult personal issues and when I realised that I could no longer cope I accepted I had to go to counselling.

It didn’t help that it was during this time that the issue of an increase in rent and tuition fees came to my attention. Initially as President I genuinely believed that I was being listened to. Sat on University Management Advisory Group on Monday mornings I felt like management were interested in what I had to say. But when it came to this, this was not the case. I questioned the proposals vehemently. My concerns were noted. I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor and my concerns were noted. I met with various members of management to further voice my worries and they were noted. As a governor of the University I sit on University Council (the University is a charity, and due to that it has a ‘trustee board ‘like set up similar to other charities) and by virtue of that position I also sit on Finance and General Purposes Committee (a sub-committee that has delegated authority from Council to make decisions about the University’s finances). Here once more I vocalised my concerns, and once more they were noted. But still no one had truly paid attention to what I was saying. Not properly. No one had reasonably validated what I felt this would mean for Home-EU Postgraduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds or international students already paying ridiculous fees, apart from telling me that they ‘understood’ how difficult this must be. University Council came around and my fellow elected student representative on the body was sure that he could convince them to do more than to note his concerns. He put forward a strong case, arguing that the decision should go to Senate so that Faculties had a say in this decision. Once more, our concerns had been noted, but we were not successful in our request. All ‘legitimate’ channels had now been exhausted and nothing had come of them. I felt disempowered and disillusioned. I had genuinely believed that talking truth to power was going to make some difference, that my voice was just as important as everyone else’s, that I was of equal worth sat around that table.

Throughout all of this I had been told that these discussions were to remain confidential, and after speaking to previous officers and other individuals throughout the University they suggested I continue through these formal structures because to have made the information public would have led to a reduction in trust and potentially remove the opportunity for constructive dialogue. It could also have led to information no longer being shared with student officers over these issues (now and in the future), impacting detrimentally upon the Union and our membership – after all, the University hold the purse strings providing them with a financial power we do not have. It seemed like the ‘right’ thing to do and, perhaps inadvisably, I believed in the positional power I had been told I held at a student governor conference that I went to. Here they told us that “decisions made in the interests of students, are in the interests of the institution”. It was very evident to me that this was not how the ‘neo-liberal’ University worked. It was now so managerialised and business-like that no matter what was taking place student welfare was consistently going to be subordinated to the profit-making mechanisms of the institution.

If I knew then what I know now I may have made a different decision in how I went about lobbying the University to reconsider a decision that I fear will be extremely detrimental to their future student body, and therefore the University itself in terms of student recruitment. I should have realised that in rooms where the voices of business dominate, moulding students minds to the interests of the ‘employability’ agenda, the reservations of a President representing those without a united voice that are exterior to the walls in which these conversations take place was never going to result in a positive outcome.

Admittedly, I was on a learning curve, believing that management would end up deciding to act in their students’ best interests. I will confess that due to the person I am, I still have a small glimmer of hope that they will do something positive around financial support for students, especially in light of the discussions that will take place this term with a representative from the occupation of University House that took place as a result of their decision.  In many ways this article is less a criticism of University Management but a critique of the economic context within which they are forced to operate, and raises questions of the future of a commodified education experience that the whole University needs to address. It reinforces to me that student activism, and not apathy, is integral. We need to form a united student movement that fights for a free and fair education system. But most of all we must challenge the damaging perception of students as passive consumers of a higher education experience, and reconstruct ourselves as empowered agents of change that are partners in the decisions the University takes. We are a voice to be heard, not to be marginalised, or merely to be ‘noted’ in documents of a bureaucratic set up that pays only lip service to student consultation.

Never wishing to end on a negative note, I am now as determined as ever to push forward with the many plans we have for this term. Personally I am looking forward to joining forces with VP (Welfare and Community) and the Women’s Liberation Officer on a Lancaster Shouts Back campaign which is centred around empowering women, especially in the lead up to full time officer elections. I am also excited to pilot an initiative called Participatory Budgeting which will give all students the opportunity to put forward ideas for how part of the Union budget will be spent, students will then have the opportunity to vote on what they would most like to see go forward. I hope that it will be a way more students will get involved with our democratic structures and feel like they have some say in the decisions the Union takes on their behalf. I am also excited to see the decision the University will take on the adoption of an Ethical Investment Policy, which has been a student-led campaign for two years now (http://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/divest-lancaster-university-from-unethical-investment-1).  The Cost of Living campaign will continue and the rest of the FTO team and I will keep you all updated on its progress now VP (Campaigns and Communications) is collating all of the research that has been conducted.

Overall, it is fair to say that I have learnt some extremely valuable lessons in Michaelmas Term and I hope I can now use what I know to positively contribute to the experiences of all students at Lancaster. I think this raises some valuable questions about the extent to which the University value students as partners in shaping their educational experience. Universities need to review how much they value the student voice, and the mechanisms that are available to political student representatives to meaningfully engage without feeling disempowered.

I know at times this article may have come across as very critical, but I really have found my experience so far to be very constructive and thought-provoking.  There have been some truly beautiful moments, in amongst the chaos of student politics – without a doubt these have been when I have been engaging with students. Talking to you keeps me grounded, and I find that invaluable, you all remind me of why I ran, and who we are fighting for, and that in itself is all the empowerment I need, so thank you.

Please feel free to contact me at: lusu.president@lancaster.ac.uk If you have anything you would like to discuss with me, and if you’re not into emails (which I totally understand!) then I am more than happy to meet up for a cuppa!

HAVE A WONDERFUL TERM EVERYONE AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

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