The Oxford SU is one of the first student bodies we interact with when we come to Oxford, holding us entranced – if only for a moment – in the vibrant array of societies and campaigns which we all sign up for only to forget about a week later.
But in the student world dominated by JCR and MCR committees, neverending deadlines and similarly omnipresent Facebook frames advertising elections to that ‘other’ union, the SU can get lost along the way. From our parochial college environment, many of us couldn’t even name who the sabbatical officers are or what they do, even though they represent the student body to draw up important changes across the university in areas such as charities, access and welfare. The SU can seem as distant and opaque as the inner workings of the Vatican. But isn’t this simply a case of meaning lost in translation? As someone with a close attachment to the work that the Student Union does, for me it is a genuine force for good which can make a real difference in the lives of the students it represents – but only if we let it.
Attachment to the SU is, of course, at an all-time low. If participation in the last sabbatical elections is anything to go by, barely ten percent of the student population were engaged in voting for the next officers to represent them. When I looked around the room at some of the ‘Mind Your Head’ Week events last term, it wouldn’t be uncommon to only count a half-dozen heads. I’m sure the vast majority of students support the work the SU does (if we ever know what that is, exactly) but the number who feel called upon to actively participate is getting fewer.
Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has shown why we need the SU now more than ever. In a massive victory for finalists – and also for the rest of us given the uncertainty of when lockdown will disappear – the University was compelled to U-turn on its policy to cancel graduation ceremonies due to take place this summer. During the vacation, the University also formally announced its policy to divest from fossil fuel companies. The weight added by the Vice Presidents for Access & Academic Affairs and Charities & Community respectively no doubt helped get these two important initiatives over the line. The Student Union has also been in a critical position representing students in consultation over virtual learning and examination. We have no idea what Michaelmas 2020 will look like, and whether we will yet be able to return to Oxford at all, so in the coming months we are going to need the support of our sabbatical officers like never before.
Of course, the Student Union doesn’t just exist for unforeseen apocalyptic absentee terms, but provides very useful events and guidance in the most average academic years too. I found the dog walks around University Parks every Friday lunchtime a fantastic reprieve and an example of welfare done well. When I asked one of the organisers how long this initiative had been going – expecting it to be something as new as my attempts at college parenting – I was staggered to learn it was over three years old. Such is the disconnect between college and university life that even the best of student initiatives can fly under the radar. In my first year, there was a fantastic launch for ‘Mind Your Head’ Week at Christ Church – drinks reception and all – which, for me, showcased some of the accomplishments which can only be pulled off on the university level. The SU is like the trunk at the centre of all of its exciting overshooting initiatives, but it appears we are often content seeing only the branch.
Just as we need the SU, the SU needs us. One thing we can all do is vote in the Student Trustee by-election between 19 and 21 May. We need every resource at our disposal to keep our Oxford University thriving even when some of us are thousands of miles removed from its ‘dreaming spires’. When more voices come together, the more audacious our dream can be of an SU we can all be proud to participate in.
James is a 2nd year historian at Brasenose, running for Student Trustee in the current election.