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Most people at Lancaster University have at least heard of LUSU (Lancaster University Students Union). Quite a lot of them aren’t sure exactly what it does, and aren’t too bothered about finding out either. In a recent survey taken, nearly 30% of students said they didn’t know what the elected FTOs did, and a majority said that people should be interviewed and appointed, rather than elected, to positions that involved decision-making. Just to fill you in on some of the stuff they do: LUSU run the Sugarhouse, support societies and sports teams, and provide a voice for the students on both a national and University level. Supposedly. The recent survey taken also shed some light on what students thought of this, saying that LUSU should focus more on campus issues, rather than getting involved in national and international politics.
Now, the reason I’m writing this article is not because I have a problem with LUSU’s aims, (although an article was written last year by then Comment Editor Daniel Snape questioning the policy of making every student a LUSU member without an opt-out system in place). Students need a voice in this increasingly corporate university system that we inhabit. LUSU recently won a victory on this front by securing some accommodation rooms on campus for the 2016/17 year at less than £100 a week. Aside from that, we also need a body who is going to run our non-academic part of university life. The problem is that LUSU is so ineffective, so weighed down by its own systems, that it takes a PhD and the time frame taken to achieve one just to understand and operate within it.
I have had plenty of friends who have worked in LUSU and plenty of friends who have worked with LUSU. I myself have plenty of experience in working with them, and the experience always seems to be the same; the left hand does not know what the right is doing. Or conversely if the right and the left hand want to do something together, they first have to consult the big toe and the right eyeball before anything can be done. You can be sure that at least one of those will only work part-time as well, so they can’t be found until a later date. Nobody seems to know exactly who has the authority to give the go ahead on certain things, or if they do they can’t be found or contacted at the moment needed. This could be because they’ve been called into their 4000th meeting of the day, or that their job remit is so large that they’re simply drowning in work.
This latter issue seems to have been plaguing the activities team lately. All of them are hardworking people, but their workload is now so large (with over 250 societies/sports teams) and the team so comparatively small, that they simply can’t cope with it all and various issues are falling through the cracks, particularly for non-BUCS teams and smaller societies. Part of the reason for this lies behind the very structure of LUSU itself; the fact that the staff turnover rate is so large – whether this be because of a elections or the nature of the position – it seems that a newly appointed member of staff spends about half of their tenure trying to find out what their predecessor did or didn’t do and thus catch up before they can start implementing their own practices.
It seems the organisation can sometimes overstep the mark as well. LUSU is a registered charity, which means that they are technically not allowed to overtly express a political opinion. I’m not entirely sure how this works for a students’ union, which by its very nature is a political body, but that’s a different matter. When this does become an issue is when the Union starts saying what can and can’t be said on campus. For example, this newspaper had it’s front page censored only a few issues ago because LUSU didn’t like what the editor was proposing to put on the front cover. I’ve also had experience of articles being heavily edited for potentially criticising the Union, or even wording something in slightly the wrong way. I’ll be interested to see whether this article actually makes it to publication.
LUSU has a definite place within the University infrastructure, it just needs to remember that it is supposed to be there for the students. This is something that the whole Union staff could do with remembering, not just the FTOs (who seem to be quite good at remembering this fact). We need the Union to give us a voice when it’s appropriate, to provide funding when needed, and support when it’s asked for. What it shouldn’t be is weighed down by its own bloated sense of self-importance, or an overly-complicated and unnecessary internal democracy. This occurs so much that it takes aeons for things to get done, or much like a game of Chinese whispers; the result that comes out at the end is nothing like what was asked for in the beginning.