On Thursday 23rd February, the UWE Student Council met to debate and vote on proposed student union policies. This was my first time attending one of these meetings, and with an observing audience of two, we had apparently set a new attendance record. Members of the student council seemed almost puzzled as to why I had come to spectate, which is understandable considering the apparent novelty of having an audience. To their credit, they were very accommodating of me, with several members even expressing their desire for larger audiences in the future. However, despite all of this, I couldn’t quite grasp why it was strange for a student to want to observe their own student council, discussing policies that would directly affect them. Perhaps a lack of engagement from students is almost expected now.
No matter. The meeting began with a section titled Presidents Questions. This mainly involved the more vocal members of the student council grilling the five presidents over things they had or hadn’t done. While I’m sure it was quite uncomfortable for those under the microscope, I must admit I rather enjoyed this part. At one point, the issue over the student union’s decision to release a statement on Trump’s “Muslim Ban” was raised. The supposed issue was not over the content of the statement, but rather how the SU had come to the conclusion that it needed to release one, given their silence on previous issues. When asked why they had not written a statement regarding Malia Bouattia’s anti-semetic comments, the presidents agreed that “retrospectively … we should have”. There were also concerns raised about the most recent break in at Marketgate, which the presidents said they would investigate. All of this was very reassuring.
After this was done, the presidents left the room and the voting began. The proposed motions covered a wide range of topics, all of which would directly impact upon the student body. Most seemed rather pragmatic and uncontroversial, such as more hot water points around campus, more halal food and better bus links between Yate and Frenchay. Others, like the idea of having an out of hours helpline for students, were frankly brilliant. Some proved to be surprisingly contentious, like requesting that the SU at Bower Ashton play other radio stations in addition to Kiss FM (this motion received the highest number of abstained votes…for some reason). Regardless, all of these motions passed through with mostly little to no objection. It wasn’t until Prevent was raised that the real debating started.
Prevent is part of a four pronged approach to tackling terrorism. This branch focuses on stopping radicalisation at its source and catching those who are radicalised before they become a danger. This involves teacher training in spotting extremism and providing workers in these institutions with the means of reporting a student/patient/client/etc. The proposed motion was to refuse to comply and condemn the agenda.
You can of course be forgiven for not knowing any of this. If you have no interest in politics, you may never have even heard of Prevent. However, if you were a student council member you would have an obligation to be informed. At the very least, you should be familiar with it. This would be especially true if you had been sent the motions several days in advance, considering a simple google search reveals all there is to know about the policy. Given this, I was more than a little disappointed when several council members raised their hands to ask what the Prevent Agenda was. How can a group of people who have never heard of a policy, vote five minutes later on whether or not to boycott it? Whether you agree or disagree with it, Prevent is a big deal, and choosing to not take part in it is an even bigger deal. Given that it is actually government policy, refusing to comply could affect state funding for the university. This is not to say that it would be wrong to boycott it, but simply that the ramifications could be vast if we did, and as such, it should not be done lightly.
Despite numerous council members being unfamiliar with the strategy, there were several members who were very knowledgeable. What’s more, this better informed few did not agree with each other on the motion. This allowed for a riveting discussion, with both sides having a fair hearing. As such, the members of the council were able to consider all aspects of the policy. In the end, the motion was not carried and was sent back to be amended. Given the lack of prior knowledge from the student council in general, I feel this was the best decision. To go ahead and throw Prevent out the window with little understanding of it would be reckless and inconsiderate.
All of which brings me back to my initial thoughts regarding student politics. The shock of me spectating a council meeting was really just a secondary symptom of the lack of engagement amongst students. Most do not care much about current affairs, and those that do often have a severe lack of understanding. I do not wish to sound rude about any one group of people, I simply feel that young people owe it to themselves to have well-informed representatives. To those who have no interest in politics, that is absolutely fine. But to the more engaged students, please make sure you do your homework before you come to the table. If not, then I see no reason why we should expect to be taken seriously by wider society.
By Freddie Gough