Last term, those who voted consigned the position of YUSU Entertainments Officer to the same historical cubbyhole as the once mighty positions of Training Officer, Union Treasurer, and Democracy and Services Officer. Those who campaigned for abolition argued that the Ents Officer job description was no longer fit for purpose as Union staff members now organise almost every aspect of Union run events and the tendering process for club nights.
In many regards this can be seen as a positive development. Staff members bring expertise and experience to areas like training, financial management and the running of the Union’s democratic processes and commercial ventures. The benefits of employing a professional cadre of Union “civil servants” to produce stability in an organisation where post-holders usually change each year, create a bank of institutional memory, and who are able to take a long view beyond the next election cycle or graduation ball, seem obvious.
Students’ unions are big business. According to research by Third Sector Magazine they spend £250 million every year and employ 3,000 “professionals”, in addition to 13,000 students, usually in retail or administrative roles. A large student union like Warwick has an operating income of £30 million a year (YUSU’s is just over £1 million), providing services and representation to 18,000 students. Putting this into perspective, Rutland County Council, spends £30.5 million a year providing all local government services to 40,000 people.
This level of complexity shows that increasingly external help in the form of professional advisers has been necessary. But it would be fair to ask, was this thought through? The steady replacement of both part-time and full time officers with professionals has been insidious. It also raises questions about the continued viability of the very concept of part time officers. Prior to reforms in 2011, YUSU’s decisions were made, in theory, by cross campus ballot and then implemented by a Union Council which consisted of both part time and full time officers. Here part time officers had a clear role-to ensure that sufficient attention was paid to the group or area they represented when officers made decisions. These decisions could then be clearly communicated to staff members to put into effect.
Under the new system this clarity in terms of role and function, between full time and part time officers, as well as staff, has been muddied. Impressive things, of great benefit to thousands of students, have been achieved by part time officers. However, the level of uncertainty about how they fit into the Union’s structure needs to addressed. I have a lot of empathy for any officer who has struggled to make an impact, as usually it is for structural reasons. If it’s felt that officers, and thus students, are ignored in the name of easy and efficient decision making, then the student union is compromised.
We are the students, it is our Union, what do we want it to look like? Do we want a student union where students are put in place to make decisions for other students, an honest, homespun, political Union largely focused on representing students and fighting their corner. But one which lacks the skill base to provide some services, remaining small. Or do we want to move in the direction of large Unions like Manchester and Leeds. They’ve abolished part time posts and many of their committees in favour of having a team of 8 or 10 sabbs who oversee large staff teams that provide a wide range of support services, development opportunities and Obama-level communications and representation to students. But one which is by necessity distant, albeit bureaucratic and technocratic in attitude?
It’s clear which direction we are currently moving in – the latter. Does it suit York? As elections approach we have a chance to interrogate our future representatives, as to whether they favour discos or democratic centralism. In the interests of transparency, accountability, and progress, if they prove able to balance both, we have a winner.