There’s an old joke, that’s been floating around for years now, that goes something like this “How many (Glasgow Uni) students does it take to change a light bulb? 76; one to change the bulb, fifty to protest the bulb’s right not to be forced to change, and twenty five to organise a counter-protest.” There is, in fact, one of these for just about every university in the country. However, the joke regarding Glasgow raises a very interesting issue; you see, ten or twenty years ago, perhaps even less than that, this joke would have rung very true indeed, however, at present it appears that it’s getting further and further from the truth. To put it simply: students don’t seem to care any more.
Now, that might seem like a rather harsh statement, but it does appear to have some substance behind it if we begin to look at some of the numbers. Let’s firstly jump into the most basic bit of student politics, i.e., the Students’ Representative Council elections. Every year, the Glasgow University student body elects members to the SRC: the SRC deals with everything from individual school representation, to various equality positions, to clubs and societies, etc. To put it simply, for the vast majority of things that affect the students on a day to day basis, the SRC runs the show. It therefore seems reasonable that such an election should garner a lot of attention from the students and that turnout should be quite high. Unfortunately this was not the case.
Excluding the individual school representatives and college conveners and the president, the average number of votes cast for the Welfare and Equal Opportunities positions sat at around 1600, with three of the positions (Gender Equality Officer, Race Equality Officer and Environment Officer) being uncontested. The sabbatical positions (VP Education, VP Student Activities and VP Student Support) averaged about 1800 votes cast for each position. The position of SRC President, the highest student position in the university, had only 2935 votes cast. It should be noted that Glasgow University has a student body of roughly 25’000 students, all of whom are eligible to vote in these elections. Hardly a resounding turnout.
Why not cast our minds back to the Glasgow University Independence Referendum which took place in February last year. It gained a huge amount of media attention, being hailed as the first real test of the straight yes/no question “should Scotland be an independent country?”. However, on campus, it received very little real attention with near enough no campaigning actually going on about the university. Once again a student population of roughly 25’000 were called to the polls to debate what is, arguably, the most important question of our generation’s lives. The turnout was a measly 2281 votes cast, less than 10% turnout.
And if my point still needs proving, have a look at the recent election for University Rector, the highest elected position in the entire university. The rector is responsible for liaising with the student body and listening to their comments and concerns in order to voice them in sessions of the University Court (the administrative body of the university) which he is also responsible for chairing. It’s a pretty big role and it attracts a lot of attention, this time even from the students. Come election day, though, the turnout sat at 6’560 ballots submitted, a turnout of roughly a quarter of those eligible to vote.
So why is this? Our election turnout is horrifically poor (this isn’t even counting the two unions’ elections or the GUSA elections), the political societies’ attendances are tiny, the sheer lack of politics of any kind on campus is, frankly, quite upsetting. Political stalls, when they do sprout up, are simply walked by with no conversation struck up at all, political campaigners stand very lonely outside the unions as people try desperately to avoid them. Even simple political discussion is nowhere to be heard: start talking politics over lunch in the QM and you’ll quickly be told by others to stop talking because “oh, it only ever causes arguments.” “Save that stuff for the silly societies.” Those societies which are, due to such attitudes, now almost impossible to find, now have such low attendance that discussions just have no atmosphere either.
And of course those discussions are meant to cause arguments, because arguments make us think; they make us defend our points of view, they force us to listen to the pros of the other side, the force us to make decisions and actually get stuff done! The idea that you shouldn’t talk politics and avoid arguing, whilst all nice and cuddly-cosy warm, is, in the long run, going to get us nowhere, it’s going to cause people to simply stop thinking and stop caring.
Now the reason I’ve centred this around a university (apart from the fact that I’m a student at that university) is that universities are places to think; they are places where we expect the next generation of our best and brightest, our scientists, doctors, teachers, philosophers and leaders to come from. But how can a university bring such people into society if, during their years there, students are being conditioned not to partake in politics, not to think, not to debate and not to speak out on the issues important to them? Very simply, it can’t. The result of the decline in student politics will result in a decline in the number of educated people taking an active interest and role in politics, it will result in a decline in the number of people willing to speak out on radical issues, it will result in a very small number of people going into politics with a very inoffensive middle ground view. It will, in short, result in a society that drives to middle of the road to sit there in neutral.
There are likely to be a large number of reasons for all of this; the increase in political apathy an general over the last decade or so, the increasingly international population of students who don’t see politics over here (even in their university) as any of their concern, etc. But if one thing does remain certain, it’s that we need to increase political interest in our universities once more, because if we don’t we may quickly find ourselves sliding down a very slippery slope to complete political apathy – the point at which democracy fails. I don’t think any of us want to see that too soon.