Picture the scene: It’s the year 2020 and the University of Warwick, still a highly respected and popular university, has grown to 30,000 students. The University has solidified its links with business and industry, who are now deeply involved in the formation of degree programmes. A decade of public-sector funding cuts has led to supposedly less-important degree programmes such as History and English Literature being dropped or merged into other departments in favour of subjects like Engineering, Maths and Chemistry. Tuition fees have skyrocketed to over £10,000 a year, and the poorest in society have been left behind by the ruthless march of “efficiency savings” and “value for money” in higher education.
Enter the scene a 19 year old student, Madeline. Madeline wakes up one morning with a splitting headache and her bedroom spinning before her eyes. She swings blindly at the alarm clock until it stops its shrill ringing. Stumbling out of bed, she pulls on a pair of jeans and tries to coordinate her feet so that they carry her out the door and down the stairs, into the chilly October mist.
As she begins the long walk from Bluebell Views to her lecture in the Science concourse, she tries to piece together in her mind the events of the previous night, realising as she does so that her wallet is significantly thinner than it was at the same time the previous day. Counting the drinks she bought explains this: £4.49 wine from Costcutter, £3.60 Carlsberg and £6.50 whiskey and Coke at the Rootes Bar, and finishing off the night with a pricey glass of wine at the Arts Centre. As she passes the strange copper overhang from the office building next to the Piazza, she wonders what the building had been used for originally, all those years ago…
While such a future may be unlikely, the Students’ Union’s impending financial struggles raise the horrifying prospect of what life at Warwick would be like without our Union. Despite students’ (and indeed, this paper’s) complaints about high drinks prices and unimaginative styling in the new building, or about the lack of societies’ spaces in the SU and supposedly unrepresentative Union democracy, it is worth remembering why we have the Union in the first place – and why we still need it.
Warwick Students’ Union’s single most important role is the same as that of any union anywhere else in the world – to represent its members’ views and provide them with a stronger voice through collective speech. This is true of unions up and down the country. Some examples include Unison, Unite, the National Union of Journalists and the National Union of Students. And at the University of Warwick, this role is just as vital as it is elsewhere.
Our university is renowned for its links with industry and, indeed, for ignoring the views of its students – for examples of this, one only has to look at the current furore over the Life Sciences merger and the fact that our Chancellor is the Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry. And despite what students may say about how ineffective the Union is at reining in the University’s more troubling tendencies, it is and will continue to be the best way we as students can voice concerns to the university. Sabbatical officers sit on important University committees, they know and understand the people and processes involved in making decisions, and they do their best to help improve student life at Warwick. Much of this work takes place behind the scenes and can, frankly, be quite mundane, explaining why it generally takes a lower place in the order of students’ priorities than the Union’s other function as a provider of services and entertainment to students.
And this other function is also an immensely important one. As our fictitious student Madeline discovered, a campus without food and beverage outlets operated by the Union would allow the University to hold a monopoly over this aspect of students’ lives. While it is admittedly unlikely that the University would raise drinks prices to the levels Madeline experienced, it is a fact that without the Union speaking as the collective voice of the students, there would be no effective way to challenge the University on such an issue. Who would raise a protest when rents were raised above the level of inflation? Who would complain on behalf of the students when a degree programme was merged, consolidated or shut down? Who would join with the NUS and speak out against tuition fee rises?
Aside from its role in keeping the University from overcharging for drinks, the Union can be, when you pause to think about it, an excellent venue for a night out. It’s convenient, relatively inexpensive, safe, and you’re guaranteed to have a clientele drawn entirely from the Warwick student body. No other club in the area can offer as much. Indeed, just last year, Top Banana was sold out by half past ten on most nights – and that was in the TES (not-so-lovingly referred to by most students as “the Tent”). This year, we have a brand new, state-of-the-art venue and Top Banana struggles to fill the Copper Rooms’ smaller Venue Two.
I think it is a sad day when our Union even finds it necessary to offer prizes and sweets to its members in order to get us to fill in a simple survey about our perception of the Union and its services. We should be interested in such matters simply because of their importance to our lives as Warwick students, and not because of the possibility of winning an iPod.
It is vital that we recognise the importance of the Students’ Union in our lives, and reclaim it for ourselves. The Union should be our students’ union. We need to take an interest in how it is run, pay attention when things go wrong, and think about how we as individuals can support it – whether by voting in SU elections, spending nights out at the Copper Rooms, running for positions in Union democracy or participating in its campaigns.
I read an issue of the _Boar_ from the 1970s, in which the reporter bemoaned “low turnout” at a protest staged by the Union and students. This supposedly low turnout was over 1,000 people. Today we’d be lucky to have 100 students present at a protest, and student activism has largely been confined to a small group of rather radical people. This should not be the case. Students need to recognise that we, through strength in numbers and through the Union that represents us, can make a profound difference in our lives here at the University of Warwick.
Without the Student’s Union, Madeline’s time at Warwick was spent in a University of sky-high fees, where the University listens only to industry instead of students. Without us, this may indeed become a reality.
Only we have the power to stop it.
### Next issue
The _Boar_’s interaction with the Union has always been fraught with tension and disagreement. That’s a necessary part of our relationship. However, as this first in a three-part series of features indicates, life without our Union would be almost unthinkable – certainly not desirable. Yet, with the academic year drawing to a close, this eventuality is inching towards being realised. Students must re-engage, but it is all very well making facile statements of this sort. Perhaps looking to the past can provide some insight?
In the week three issue the _Boar_ will be taking a look at students’ historical involvement with the Union, both in terms of ‘official’ Union politics and radical activism on the outside. For those who have cared to delve into our Union’s past, beyond vague, rarely elaborated references to ‘Red Warwick’, a world exists – told through black and white photographs and archived copies of Campus and the _Boar_ – of stair hall meetings, weekly Union General Meetings, and a slow lapse into disengagement. As Derek noted in this feature, today’s activism is confined to a small, if vocal, minority. Even participation in the sabbatical elections barely managed to scrape an underwhelming 22.5 percent of students voting in 2010.
Has it always been this way? In some respects, the answer is yes. ‘Red Warwick’ has always been touched by the mythical, built on good propaganda and nostalgia as much as on its students’ indignation against injustices.
Drawing on our own archives the _Boar_ hopes to shed some light on how this relationship between the Union and students has changed, and in what ways.
In the final feature of term, we take a look at the Union’s financial, administrative, and democratic structures as they are in 2010. Standing as we are in the wake of an unpopular vote of no confidence (and a popular reinstatement) of one of our sabbs, and facing a financial crisis, there has been a growing concern to change things for the better. The last feature will make some suggestions for the upcoming struggle.