Your chairman has said that “guild politics is shambolic and petty,” and I couldn’t agree more. I may not of experienced Birmingham University Guild politics firsthand, but my friend Daniel Cowdrill has spoke of their inflexibility, overuse of red tape, and poor management. I have had plenty of experience with my own students’ Union (UCLU) both on a committee, and as a Sabbatical officer, which of course brought me into contact with the National Union of Students (NUS). I applaud your attempt to engage in a more active sense with BULS, especially whilst you consider the viability of long term relations with the Guild. If it were my position I would vote to break relations with the Guild, but attempt to work with any other political or debate based societies with the hope of doing events together. It is a shame BULS has resorted to the tactics it has, undermining hopes of working with them.
That in its self might go some way towards working against student apathy at your University. Now here is where I bring in my experiences and the lessons I have learned from them. At UCL there was a grassroots group named “Disarm UCL” who made a lot of noise and caused a lot of embarrassment to the University just because of its small number of shares in two weapon system manufacturers. That group went on to upset the Union as it attempted to put its governance structure to a referendum in order to better comply with the Charities Act of 2006, and make it easier for students to engage with the Union. Through unashamedly underhand tactics the governance debate was stalled before it even got to the student body, wasting two years of work. Once those two demons were defeated, they took further underhand action to get the Officer Training Corps banned from Union events for two years – the length of time a motion remains active once passed at Council.
What have I learned about student politics from those experiences? Rules and regulations are, on a whole, somewhat useful for the smooth operation of a Guild or Union. I do believe they could be reviewed and streamlined, or at the very least, made more opaque so people understand why they exist. Apathy begins at home. Most students don’t care how or why the Guild works, they just want to be able to take from it what they can (whether that’s sporting activities or just a cheap NUSSL supplied beer) whilst they get on with their studies. However, if a student is so inclined to participate, then often it is those same rules which enable the Guilds existence which can cause people to loose interest at an early stage. If you get over that red-tape based gag reflex, then you might want to stand for election. I encourage anyone who gets to the stage where the desire to be involved is more than a passing fancy, to stand for election. The more people from societies such as this one get involved and stand for positions, the less chance NUS inspired groups and policies can impose their views and practices on the majority. That is, unless the majority agree with those sorts of practices and opinions – similar to those voiced by BULS regarding whether BUCF is affiliated with the Guild.
I do not think the NUS is completely ineffective at looking after student interests, but it is quite clear from my own experience that if you want to take students “up the apathy staircase” (a training seminar the NUS gives to new officers) then clearer rules, greater involvement from a wider group of students, and more open debate between different political groups is the way forward.