A joke is just a joke, but students won’t take their Union seriously as long as it keeps managing to turn itself into one
As any seasoned campus observer will be aware, the Students’ Union can work in mysterious ways. Rarely, however, have its limbs managed to pull so violently in opposite directions. As one metaphorical hand snatches risqué magazines from the shelves of Your:Shop, another is making jokes about pulling students. Meanwhile, University bosses look on with studied indifference, siphoning cash off into a cavernous pit a few miles to the east. What is all too easily forgotten amid the light and heat so effortlessly generated by Union officers and keen-eared campus hacks is the real object of the whole enterprise: looking after the interests of students.
All those involved with the bingo hall nudge-winkery insist that despite anything that might have been said, or any scoresheets that that were drawn up, it was all nothing more than a bit of fun; a joke easily made, and even more easily forgotten. It’s perfectly likely that they’re telling the truth. Moreover, anyone tempted to throw down moral standards for others must first realise that they may well end up standing accused of hypocrisy. After all, there are few traits less attractive than criticising the moral pratfalls of others whilst behaving little better one’s self. So, with that in mind, what right do we have to stick our necks out and cast the first stone?
There are two good reasons, and both are matters of that most unfashionable of concepts: integrity. The first and most basic problem is the responsibilities that sabbatical officers take on when they agree to accept a salaried position representing students. What they do in their time off is their own business; they have social lives outside of student politics (at least, you really have to hope that they do) and ought to be allowed to keep them separate and private. So far, so very uncontroversial. When it comes to the welfare of students during Freshers’ Week, however, what they say publicly ought to be no different to what they say behind closed doors. To promise students their welfare is being taken seriously, then to fail to do so when you think that nobody’s listening, is totally indefensible.
That in itself is sanction enough for a slap on the wrist. But there’s another problem, one that goes deeper, and lies at the heart of the uncomfortable truth that most students at York regard their Union as a harmless but ultimately impotent talking shop: If students elect people to fight their corner, not to mention help to pay off their loans into the bargain, they have a right to expect that they’ll stick to the principles on which they were elected. Whatever you think of covering up Nuts to protect Jodie Marsh’s modesty, and there are plenty of reasons to think it’s a pretty silly idea, it is at least easy to square with the Union’s objective of promoting sexual equality. The motion was proposed by the womens’ officers, who are students and work for free: there’s no reason not to trust that they genuinely think it’s the right thing to do by the Union’s policy.
Sabbatical officers are not students. They have no reason to be on campus other than doing the job they are paid for. That’s not to say they can’t still be involved in student life (it would be difficult for them not to be) but it does mean they should take the Union’s policies seriously, in private as much as in public. If they don’t feel they can do that, they can propose whatever changes to them they like. But as long as the YUSU charter contains no explicit mention of the right of officers to the sexual favours of students, they should leave the bingo to women of a certain age: they are, after all, much more likely to win something.
None of this is to say that sabbs aren’t capable of taking their jobs seriously. That would be unfair: anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced a campus election season will know that those who reach the top of the greasy pole are immensely, perhaps even irrationally proud of their positions. It would also be dishonest to ignore the good work that the Union does: for all its shortcomings, its officers do more than anyone else to help the student body limp slowly and reluctantly towards being a vibrant community. But here’s the rub: without the full and active support and, crucially, the respect of every student, the Union has no hope of ever making a lasting difference, especially with University bosses standing in the way. It hasn’t even come close to securing this support, and nothing could do less to stop the rot than the fraternity-style antics of people who really ought to have grown out of it by now.