Cherwell: ‘OUSU is doomed to dullness’

Here’s my piece reproduced from last week’s Cherwell about Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), in light of tomorrow’s election:

On Tuesday polls open for the OUSU elections. Rafts of candidates are standing for coveted positions in the student union, and we’re all invited to help pick which smiley-faced do-gooders go Imagewhere. But even though it only takes about 40 seconds to go online and vote, most of us (82% last year) won’t bother.

To the extent that OUSU rests in our consciousness at all it is associated with three things: incessant emails, free condoms and David J. Townsend, in that order. Nothing much can change that, though perhaps if David J. Townsend just let us call him ‘Dave’ we might cultivate more of a cuddly affinity to the place.

This year’s contenders for President are promising to change that. Izzy Westbury’s tagline, ‘refreshOUSU’ has a certain ring to it, but it’s not at all realistic – and she knows it. The truth is that the fierce apathy students will once again show is entirely rational. That is because we are not one student body, but several (46 to be precise). Oxford is not a homogeneous mass with the student union at its centre; rather, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, it consists in ‘little platoons’. It is in the confines of college – that lovely space where social and academic life are messily integrated – where most of our problems arise and are then solved.

The collegiate Oxford system dooms OUSU to irrelevance. OUSU is to students what the EU is to the British. We’re totally ignorant of what happens there, though vaguely suspicious that some kind of black magic is going on, and treat enthusiasts with a mix of amusement and condescension. To push the analogy explicitly, we don’t want to be ruled (represented) from Brussles (Worcester Road – OUSU HQ) because ‘we already have our own Parliament (JCR) thank you very much!’

It doesn’t help that Oxford is replete with clubs, societies and journals that suck away energy from the official student union. Proud institutions like the Oxford Union and OUDS who long pre-date OUSU dominate university life. Consequently OUSU is a shell. It functions in the shadows, rarely coming into contact with students (the one exception is RAG, its charity arm).

This is not to say that we don’t need OUSU. Indeed its foundation is instructive in why we do need it. In 1961, the University Proctors banned the then-weekly magazine Isis from publishing reviews of lectures. Students resisted, but lacked a body through which to represent themselves to the university. OUSU was born out of that need, and it continues to fight our corner today. But it will always fail to capture of imagination or, save extraordinary circumstances, touch our lives.

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