In the light of last month’s student’s union elections at UEA and the lack of diversity perceived in the results, the news that a study by the University of Surrey has discovered that union leadership is “unreflective of the students they represent” presents an interesting question.
The study considers whether students’ unions can still be an active, democratic and valuable part of students’ lives and wellbeing if they are overwhelmingly “dominated by middle-class white men?”
The study suggests that women and minority group members are often “relegated to more junior sabbatical posts”, and that while female students have made up seven of the past 15 NUS presidents, researchers found that they are “far less likely to attain senior roles at branch level”. 2010 findings by the National Union of Students appear to be confirmed by this study.
The NUS revealed that while “47% of union officer roles were held by women”, they only made up 28% of university students’ union presidents. This implies that as a whole group across the board, women are less involved with student politics and have less representation. Another group of students experiencing under representation in union roles at a national level are those from black and ethnic minority groups.
These students make up 17% of all university places nationwide but are currently only constituting 11% of officers. Gay students, however, make up approximately 11% of sabbatical officers compared to 6% of students and are the one minority group that is well- even over-represented.
However, the paper also contains perhaps even more important information about the impact of economic differences on union representation. Students who come from poorer backgrounds that require them to work to support themselves whilst studying are also much less likely to have the time to “network and establish friendship groups that form the basis of most election bids”.
Working while at university can be an important and valuable use of students’ time, but involvement in union politics ought to be something that is open to anyone regardless of their financial situation and unions should take this into consideration and aim to make standing for election an opportunity available to any student who wishes to be involved.
One of the report’s authors, Rachel Brooks, a professor of sociology at Surrey University stated that it is “vital for unions to reflect the wider student body” and emphasised the “increasingly key role” they play in forming university policies and attitudes.
UEA’s recent student elections held in March resulted in the four male full-time officers returning to their posts for another year. Holly Staynor, the female full-time officer for Welfare, Community and Diversity who has chosen to step down at the end of the year will be replaced by Jo Swo. This suggests that the balance of gender and ethnicities within the group did not change.