The Non-Existant Neoliberalized Student Union- Not Fit For Purpose

Hurray!!!! After a four week wait, I finally have a power supply for my laptop and now able to properly communicate with one and all!

Recently, the Black and Ethnic Minorities’ Association (BEMA) at the University of Birmingham issued a statement regarding the lack of care and attention to the on-going racist graffiti incidents by the university and the complete failure to tackle far-right racist rhetoric and activism on campus.. The statement condemns university management for “Normalising far-right politics and ideologies, presenting an acceptable outward image and allowing them to flourish in public, providing them leverage in wider society, are how fascism and right wing extremism have always gained its foothold; in society, in electoral politics, and just as easily on our campuses.” The statement also condemns the Guide of Students at the University of Birmingham for dismissing BEMA’s petition against one particular far-right fascist student, Emmerson Collier as no more than “harassment”. As the BEMA statement indicates,

“In short, our expectations from the University and Guild were minimal, but with their pathetic response they have managed to lower the bar even further.

Our requests to meet with the University to discuss long-standing concerns over discrimination have been summarily ignored, and we find ourselves condemned for exercising what little power we as BME students have at this University to raise our concerns.

We find it strangely ironic how tolerant the University of Birmingham seems to be of intolerance.

But for a University that has been so quick to clampdown on its own members for matters of actual political disagreement, we would appreciate not being lectured about plurality and freedom of speech by them.

So far this only reiterates what we already knew – Black and Brown people lie at the bottom in the University of Birmingham.

However, it is not just BEMA and their concerns that have been summarily ignored by both the University of Birmingham management and their Guide of Students. Student activists are increasingly questioning the collusion between their respective student unions and university management in spearheading and furthering neoliberal objectives.  These objectives are not in line with the actual mission of a student union, to give a platform for activism and provide welfare for student issues.

Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) recently blogged a piece that critically examined the lack of solidarity that the Warwick University Student Union showed to WFFE student activists who went into occupation in December 2014. The piece states,

“When students are faced with increasingly repressive opposition from university management, this is where I believe the SU should be playing its most fundamentally important role. Student Unions are, in theory, the highest form of student representation. They were created to promote the welfare and voices of students, by giving them a platform to engage democratically in University processes and decisions. And let us not forget that they were fought for. At Warwick, the only reason we have a dedicated SU building is as a direct result of a successful occupation back in the 70’s. Too often, Student Unions fall into a “mediating” role between the ‘activists’ and management whenever the relationship between the University and students becomes overtly political. Far from being neutral, this works in favour of the University and against the students, and reinforces the neoliberal paradigm of the SU being some sort of hollow “service provider”. We need Unions run by their members, with direct democratic process and a commitment to taking action to fight for our interests.

7 of the 15 named protestors who were taken to court by UAL were elected student representatives. The SU President, supported by a fantastic sabb team, were not only an integral part of the occupation, but also fought hard in court for the rights of their students, thus managing to throw out legal costs and disciplinaries against protesters. To me, this was a perfect example of why SUs exist, and how they should be at the heart of student activism, thus taking the lead in fighting for students whose rights are under attack.

Sadly, here at Warwick, the situation was in stark contrast. Seeing what SUs can be like in the past few weeks has led me to reflect on our own experiences, and the ways in which I feel we have been really let down in the past 4 months:

  • Inside the occupation, after the first couple of hours we had exceptionally little face-to-face contact with any SU representatives, and were pretty much left to fend for ourselves.
  • During our forced and utterly farcical “negotiations” meeting with management the SU remained silent over our demands – many of which they are mandated to support via SU democratic policy – and would not speak out vocally for our right to protest.
  • Not a single SU representative came to support students in court when they were being legally threatened by the University.
  • After 3 protesters, including a Warwick student, were violently arrested at the December sit-in which led to the occupation, the SU were nowhere to be seen at the first bail review, the second bail review or the court hearing.
  • The SU have stayed silent after being asked to voice public solidarity with the Warwick 3 whose welfare has suffered enormously from the ongoing trauma they have faced, and are still facing.
  • At the recent Warwick summit on protest, when student activists challenged 4 University representatives over their handling of the December events, the SU would not even condemn university management in failing to uphold its duty of care towards students.”

Some activists aren’t just blogging about the lack of care that their student union has shown with regards to the #FreeEducation movement, they are actually taking a more hands on approach that shows the utter hypocrisies within student union politics. A few days ago, as reported by the London Student, 50 trophies were stolen liberated from the LSE student union by a student activist under the alias, “Don Durito” indicating that the trophies taken were motivated by,  “LSESU’s alleged collusion with the university after the LSE Occupation was forced to end. The post went on to denounce LSESU as “self-serving”, and claimed that the stolen trophies would be redistributed amongst activists from the various student occupations of the past two months.”

Justice4Sanaz understand the utter disappointment and outright anger that student activists have concerning their non-existant student union, whether from BEMA, WFFE, or those from the recent LSE Occupation.

After three years of activism and many meetings with the University of Leeds Student Union (LUU)  requesting their full support of this campaign, we still are met with silence and are continually dismissed by those that should be helping this campaign. Justice4Sanaz has met with both the 2013-2014 and the 2014-2015 LUU Student Executive Team and despite requesting that we work together for the betterment of all post-graduate students, our requests have been repeatedly ignored, e-mails unanswered, and our presence completely unwelcomed within “official” student union activism.

In a letter that the Justice4Sanaz campaign sent both on the 7th November 2014 and later resent on the 27th November 2014 to NUS President, Toni Pearce, NUS Welfare VP, Colum McGuire, NUS Higher Education VP, Megan Dunn, NUS Society and Citizenship VP, Piers Telemacque, along with the NUS Black Students’ Officer, Malia Bouattia and the NUS International Officer, Shreya Paudel asked for an the NUS to investigate why the LUU repeatedly has failed to adequately address the request for solidarity and support from the Justice4Sanaz campaign. The letter which can be read in full below was endorsed by the the following individuals:

Susuana Antubam, NUS Women’s Officer
Elaha Walizadeh NUS London Women’s Officer
Sofiya Ahmed NUS London Women’s Officer
Jon Warner NUS London NEC
Noor Khan VP Learning and Teaching, Kingston University Students’ Union
Mariam Guled, NUS Black Students’ Committee
Clifford Fleming, Young Greens National Co-chair and NUS NEC
Kelly Marie Teebon, LiverpoolSU Women’s Campaigner
Roza Salih – Vice President diversity and advocacy at Strathclyde students association and NUS scotland international students officer
Bahar Mustafa – Welfare and Diversity Officer Goldsmith SU
Howard Litler – President Goldhsmith SU
Shay Olupona – Campaigns and Activities Officer Goldsmith SU
Sarah El-alfy, Education Officer Goldsmith SU
Georgie Robertson, Co-president Welfare and Campaigns SOAS SU
Harriet Pugh, UMSU Education Officer
Kelechi Chioba, Disabled Students Rep NUS Black Students’ Campaign
Zarah Sultana, NUS NEC

Despite this, Justice4Sanaz has still not received a reply to our correspondence from the NUS concerning the repeated failures of LUU to address our concerns and to give solidarity to the campaign.

Letter to the NUS November 2014Letter to the NUS November 2014Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 21.51.33Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 21.51.50

In fact, during the 2013-2014 LUU Student Executive committee, Alice Smart was the then Education Officer for LUU. Representatives from the Justice4Sanaz campaign met with her twice in October 2013, and brought a list of issues to the table at both meetings, including the following:

1. Procedural irregularities that unfairly affect international students.

2. Lack of effective supervision and mentoring within postgraduate programs.

3. Department and institutes not adhering to their own best practice procedures as set forth in the student handbook.

4. Bullying, xenophobia and racism that affects the scholastic environment for international and BME students.

You would think that it would be in the best interest for Alice Smart as the then LUU Education Officer, to address these issues. Instead, Alice Smart repeatedly refused to answer messages sent concerning the issues outlined and about providing solidarity to the Justice4Sanaz campaign. Unsurprisingly, Alice Smart further her student political career into local Leeds politics by becoming a Councillor (Labour, naturally) for Armley.

The reason why student unions are so utter ineffectual is to do with the continued neoliberalization of higher education. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, student unions were places were student activism flourished. There were actual spaces within the student union that allowed for and encouraged student activism as a result of hard-won battles made by student activists. Yet today, these hard-won concessions are falling by the wayside and most student unions have become little more than a glorified food court, providing us with a Subway, a Starbucks and club nights. It is no wonder that most student unions, with the exception of those more political engaged and for the #FreeEducation movement, are so out of touch with their student body and continually collude with university management and the neoliberal higher education policy.

And then there are those much like in the same vein as Alice Smart, who use student union to jump start their career in the Labour party, much like their NUS cohorts. These “mainstream student activists” only give a damn about those most marginalized the violence of austerity and neoliberalism, the disabled, BME, working class, queer, women and migrants, when it is election time and they are in need of our votes. Once elected, our concerns are left unanswered and we are treated with contempt and hostility.

Just as the neoliberal university needs massive restructuring, so too do student unions.

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About justice4sanaz

For 3 years, Sanaz Raji, a non-EU international student from the United States, has waged a fearless and brave fight against institutional aggression, bullying, and racism from the School of Media and Communication (formerly the Institution of Communications Studies) University of Leeds. The School of Media and Communication took away Sanaz's scholarship in August 2011, only 2 weeks before the start of her third year into her PhD studies. The School of Media and Communication breached their own procedures and rules concerning evaluating student progress. By taking away Sanaz's scholarship, the School of Media and Communication prevented her from continuing her studies in addition to having a decent standard of living with food and shelter that all students expect as a human right. In waging her battle for equal rights for non-EU international students, Sanaz was evicted from her university accommodation in May 2014, threatened with an ASBO (anti-social behavior order) and now fighting against deportation. All non-EU international students should have the right to challenge their universities for their failings without the threat of harassment or deportation. Justice4Sanaz is a movement to redress the failure of the student movement to discuss the myriad of ways that non-EU students, especially those who are people of color, are silenced, bullied and threatened within the neoliberal British university system.
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