Opinion

Will the Real Oxford Union Please Stand Up? An Insider’s View

I am Priya Garg. I completed my Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) and spent part of my time doing so on the Oxford Union’s Secretary’s Committee. While many of my peers found the Oxford law faculty’s reading list fascinating, it was the Oxford Union which was my heartbeat during my stint at Oxford. Therefore, I stood for its elections, even when I did not have an elaborate slate and even though my final exams were hardly a week away.

As an Oxford Union’s elected member in the Secretary’s Committee, I tried to assist the Union and its office bearers to the best of my capacity. Before I sign off, I think it is my responsibility to dedicate a note to the Oxford students and the Oxford Union, presenting my views about what is really wrong with the Union and what is an exaggerated version.

Let me first talk about the practice of binning speakers.

Imagine you are X and you are organising an event. There is no way for you to know in advance how many people are going to respond to your call for being the guest speaker. You work under time and resource constraints. You know you only have vacations period to invite the speaker. What would you do?

The most intuitive answer is: send invites to as many people as possible to ensure that you have a good list of star speakers. In my personal opinion, this is exactly what the Union tries to do when it sends out its invitations. It, practically speaking, needs to send out wide number of speaker invites. And if in certain terms, a large number of speakers respond, binning may be the way out. However, this does not mean that there is no way the Union could handle this more efficiently and gracefully. For instance, I can see two solutions to minimise any kind of negative impact or impression someone may have about the Union in such (awkward) cases.

First, the Union may absorb its excess speakers into its other events such as podcasts or online events or its outreach initiatives or it may accommodate some speakers in the next term. Second, even when the Union needs to retract the invitation, it is non-negotiable that the Union politely revert to that person. I mention this point because I have received feedback from some speakers I sent an invite to that it would be better to have quicker responses from the Oxford Union. Conclusively speaking, warm, timely and honest yet pragmatic responses to invitees at all times are what the most important and easiest thing to do is. This shall not eliminate the need for binning; however, going an extra mile can help salvage the situation.

Next, hack messages must be discussed. This time again when the Union elections happened, the manifesto of banning hack messages came into picture. But why do many Oxford students hate hack messages? They do so perhaps not because they cannot handle one more message in their inbox; what they may be against is ‘sudden’ change in the temperament of candidates when they go out to seek votes in the election season. It may be possible that many of the Oxford Union elected members are not as responsive as their position (and Union’s delicate position) requires them to be. It may be this general lack of responsiveness of many in the usual course of events that may make hack messages come as nothing but irritation.

I remember when I was new to the Union and was in the bar section of the Union building for the first time, my friend, an older member of the Union, said to me, “oh, look at her. She is an office-bearer. She would not come and talk to us while we are in the bar or in the Union building. But when elections would come, she and many others would just become the sweetest people in the world. So hypocritical.” Perhaps this needs to change. Responsiveness goes a long way in generating warmth and sending positivity. The same is true for the Union’s elected members. Having a tutorial essay due cannot be the reason for not replying, nothing can be. With office comes power, and with that responsibility. Period.

Hence, the problem is not with hack messages, but in the backdrop against which they are generated.

Let me give you a peep into how the Union works, especially from what I saw. We begin with working on the speaker invites. Once that is done (and this takes a significant proportion of time), we are given a form to submit any of our institutional suggestions. By that time, mostly everyone believes that having sent the speaker invites, the job is done. I believe that therefore the reformation work should not be second in the order of tasks in any term, especially because when the candidates go out, seeking votes, they ride on the promises of institutional reforms and, sometimes, that alone.

In my personal experience, every single elected member and office bearer at the Union I interacted with was polite, kind and caring. I would have been long disqualified had it not been the effort of some of the members to remind me before every meeting as I had my work life ongoing during the meeting timings! Everyone has been responsive to my suggestions and the former President especially has been exceptionally approachable and receptive. The Union is a normal institution with abnormal perception issues.

However, the Union does have significant scope for improvements; which institution does not?