The Wessex buses are often the only way for students to get to uni, but for as long as the collective student memory can stretch the service has been terrible. This year however, they are outdoing themselves. Anyone on the Freshers Facebook page can see a constant stream of complaints about late and absent buses. When we are paying extortionate fees, if we are going to miss a lecture, it better be for a hangover; unreliable buses are more than a source of consternation – people can and do lose grades and miss assessments with no recourse.

Wessex effectively monopolise student transport and we have to get to uni somehow, so they can provide a feeble service and we still have to beg for the most basic services on their terms. So when UWESU President Charlie Roper was elected he promised to “give you a voice” and collect feedback from students for Wessex and First Bus to lobby for improvements.

True to his word he skipped around Frenchay, arm in arm with UWE Vice Chancellor Steve West, collecting information from students. Their conclusion: extend certain routes, establish new ones and for the SU to continue lobbying for reliability. The data is now collated into meaningless information piles and info -graphics on the SU website. Despite everything service seems to have deteriorated.

Recently a statement on the Freshers Facebook page tried to calm the torrent of anger spewed on its wall;:“Wessex are committed to working through your comments and have been monitoring how they can change things to make it better for you.” Oddly, that isn’t a quote from Wessex, that’s a quote from Roper. Who is he speaking for again?

Credit: Geof Sheppard
Credit: Geof Sheppard

Charitably, shoddy service could just be teething problems, even if the service is going to improve with time, it is doubtful. The issue is Charlie’s strategy. Whenever the Wessex bus crisis is mentioned, students appear as passive consumers, Charlie gives the company feedback on our behalf and they will change, if they fancy it. All the President can do is pass on their messages to us, or invite us to an event where we’re promised Wessex are ‘working on it’ but again no evident results.

This echoes one of the saddest things about UWE’s patronising culture where desired effect is to provide as seamless and ‘professional’ an experience as possible, like a package tour pastiche of education, with the SU as your boozy holiday rep. This attitude extends into the Union; the incoming presidents are treated as  grown-ups, in contrast to child-like students- and told to act like it. Sadly, the model for responsible adult is ‘tour guide’- the job is to hide the friction of real life and allow for a smooth ‘consumer experience’. As a result, Roper has studiously situated himself as the mediator between students and the organisations that affect your “student experience”.

When a single representative purport to “give you a voice” in meeting of their executives, speaking to our executives, they can be easily influenced into compromise; accepting the perspective that we are powerless. However, attempts to branch out into non-student market have been disastrous for Wessex; out of term buses are empty, year on year. We are a vital revenue stream and this gives us incredible power.  Allowing the President to speak for us divests our power to one malleable person; Charlie.

The alternative is angry students making Wessex listen and using our own power- not just attending the odd meeting organised to shut us up.  If we could envision a different kind of Students Union, one that takes the collective anger of students and channels it into practical action rather than into a spreadsheet in a meeting that we aren’t invited to, things might change.

Phil Mansell investigates the recent action:

WesternEye spoke to SU President Charlie Roper to get his thoughts on the Wessex Bus issues. He said;

‘We’re trying to hold the bus services accountable for their public pledges, and we’ve been very clear that Wessex need to communicate with students better, through their website, through Facebook and Twitter. I have started meeting regularly with Wessex and First Bus, they take in a lot at the meetings and they are engaging with your feedback.. We (the SU) have a responsibility to make sure the competition between both services (Wessex and First) is healthy and competitive, and it’s important that one company does not monopolise the market. Your feedback encourages direction for both companies and ties them to public pledges which they have made on their website. This is where your feedback is crucial. I will continue to work for students and making sure any collective concerns are raised to both bus operators’.

At the Question Time-style #askwessex event in Red Bar on Thursday 9th October a number of students vented their frustration with the bus company. Wessex officials attended, and stressed that they were taking steps to deal with the complaints and the obvious issues. Greater social media presence was promised, and Wessex asked for patience whilst the company synchronises with student’s needs. Towards the end of the meeting, one Wessex official stated; ‘Today has been an invaluable opportunity to meet with students. With the help of Charlie (Roper) we should do this again in a couple of months if possible’.

By Matt Hollinshead and Sam Grist with the collaboration of Phil Mansell