How much is my vote worth?

Students’ Unions are the bodies, mostly led by elected full-time or part-time student officers, and whose key responsibility is to represent the students at their institution, be it a University or College.

Each year, elections are held at these bodies, with candidates coming forward and vying for your vote, offering a host of exciting new policies, ideas and political direction (or in some cases, what may seem like a rehash of something that was tried before unsuccessfully). But the important thing here, is that these candidates are offering themselves up for a year to represent students at these high levels; to try and make things better for students while at their institution and to ensure that decisions made are in the best interests of all students.

Now a lot of the time, when you’re either on the Candidate side of partaking in an election or as a staff member side of running and facilitating the election, you’re trying to explain to students about why they should vote, how important it is and what difference it will make to them.

Looking from Union to Union, until this year, we celebrate successes of a 20% voter turnout. Sometimes even less than that. We look at the results. Over 1000 voters and that feels legitimate. It’s also a lot of people candidates and our various efforts have engaged.

This year we’ve been incentivising students to vote.

This isn’t a new concept, but suddenly through looking at a lot of Students’ Union pages – I’ve seen offerings of

  • Potentially winning iPads
  • Printing credits and food
  • 1/4–1/2 chicken from Nandos?

And it seems to be working.

Those who have invested in these various “bonuses” or “freebies” seem to be reaping the rewards of higher voter turnout in their investments. It has been exciting watching the celebrations and figures, but I can’t help but feel like a traditionalist confused by this new age of incentives.

We sat down in our own Students’ Union to review our recent elections to have a talk about what direction we should take. If incentives mean that students vote, then that’s a greater mandate for our elected officers, but then equally, will they be taking a level of consideration over their vote or will they just go for a single vote (alphabetically), hitting minimum requirements just to get their freebie? I guess there has always existed that possibility, but now the question is once again posed.

I’ve had some questions and thoughts.

As you’ve probably gathered from my recent posts, I have a lot of thoughts when it comes to SUs and University life. Having been in “the movement” for 6 years (as Part-Time to Full-Time Officer now Staff), I’ve experienced different approaches to elections, and these thoughts have arisen when thinking about “the commercialisation of SU Elections”:

1) Are we doing enough to empower our candidates to run and then campaign effectively?

Should we be recruiting from day one, offering leadership workshops and training sessions all year round or stay focused on a December-March approach?

2) Are we celebrating our wins successfully?

Could the average student tell you what a Students’ Union is or anything we do for students? Do we celebrate ourselves enough? Do students know the differences we’ve made for them? Do we explain what an SU is in a relevant and simple enough way? Should we encourage our officers to post on all platforms about their various successes and get them out of their offices and talking to students?

3) Are we doing enough for our satellite campuses or distance learners?

In an age of Universities expanding both off their main campuses and opening campuses and partnerships abroad, are we doing enough to engage those students all year round, let alone during elections? Surely they are more likely to vote if they are being engaged with and understand what the SU does and can do for them, and that we are there for them too?

4) Are we weakening our future under a Government already keen to see us fail?

This is a worry of mine. 2010 onwards has hardly been the easiest time for SU, particularly this last year or so which has seen the likes of a Higher Education Green Paper (basically to de-power Unions), cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance, cutting Maintenance Grants, fees….and all of the fun things that are sure to come.

Could the incentivising of elections mean we become vulnerable or will it help our validity? Should we be consistently running a #LoveSUs style campaign to highlight the important work we do?

5) Is this just another result of the marketisation of Higher Education?

Here I’m referring to our new age of £9000 fee-payers, who may now equate their education and decisions in terms of costs – e.g. “Am I getting a good quality lecture and resources for the amount that I’m paying?” In an era where it seems every University survey has an incentive, is it just expected that SUs should follow suit?

At the end of the day.

We’re seeing increased voter turnout, and it is nice to see elections being talked about in a positive way. Perhaps incentives are something we should celebrate.

One of the hardest things to come to terms with is that some people just don’t care, and they won’t. But that is totally fine and normal. As long as they know that their SU will be there for them if they need us.

My theory is that if we work hard enough to demonstrate how important we are as SUs, ensure that we are clear of who we are and make it easy for students to understand and we offer development opportunities to students all year round, perhaps we can naturally improve turnout.

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