Is the Student’s Association a vital component of the university?

This week's Devil's Advocate discusses the relevances of the Student's Union. Charlotte Andrew, the Association President, argues for its relevance, while Emily Allen argues that it is not relevant.

Union - Henry Legg

Yes – Charlotte Andrew 

In a year where the manoeuvrings of political figures have somewhat sullied the spirit of democracy, the St Andrews student elections continue to be anomalous. Last year campaigning was fair, well-intentioned and rational. I’m hopeful this year will be the same.

I can safely say that when I ran, campaign week was the most high pressure period of my life (now I’d perhaps rate it alongside helping Taryn with Freshers’ Week and over seeing Raisin Weekend). It was also the most edifying.

Clearly, the outcome of a sabbatical election impacts your immediate future to a huge extent, but it’s the additional pressure originating from the hopes and expectations of others upon which all the sabbatical candidates rest. From family members, to friends helping on a campaign, to students you meet throughout the week who feel an affinity with your policies and priorities, each encouragement and message of support adds both buoyancy and burden to the race. Coping with the strain of knowing you may be about to lose out on some thing you are truly passionate about, in public, is difficult. But learning to be resilient is an extremely valuable lesson.

Embracing the possibility that losing could very likely occur, and not permitting that fear to preclude leaping into the unknown is a defining moment I hope all students at the University of St Andrews – and else where – experience. The possibility of failure is everywhere; our elections teaches students that it should not in capacitate them. Student elections are not the sole means by which we learn this, but it is a particularly public variation on the theme.

From the point of view of the bystander, too, there are values to be noted. St Andrews consistently has either the largest, or one of the largest, turn-outs in our student elections. Engagement is high, enthusiasm pervasive and the levels of both innovation and talent is always impressive.

Personally, I found the work of members of my campaign team to be both inspiring and humbling. For every candidate, having so many people willing to believe in their ideas and their ability to carry them forward will always be both motivational and a solid foundation to their self-belief. The dedication and creativity we see here year after year in elections proves that my own experience was by no means unique; St Andreans have and will always highly value supporting each other in pursuit of their goals. It’s a process I wish everyone could go through, despite the fact it’s not always enjoyable!

One of the notable characteristics of each generation throughout history is that, whilst at university, they were and are and, I hope, will continue to be idealistic, believing in the possibility of change. Candidates run on this every year, focusing on how to be better and never questioning whether it is possible or not. It’s how we ensure improvement is consistently sought after and how we know that to excel, we can never stand still. That’s one of the many reasons why universities are the pinnacle of social development. I think, perhaps, if we were to neglect elections, the belief students have in their own significance and their ability to influence the world would be diminished.

Directly experiencing the representational value and fickleness of democracy is an important process for young people to participate in. Ensuring that each generation appreciates the benefits of voting and campaigning often relies upon individuals first experiencing those benefits in a smaller, more personal environment. The theory is that they (we!) will then extrapolate that to believing in the impact of general elections and their ability to influence the outcome.

My experience of student elections has been two parts rewarding and one part exhausting. That’s a valid description of my entire undergraduate career, and of my time as a sabbatical officer too. I know the candidates this year are motivated by a willingness to ensure as many students as they can reach have as excellent a time in St Andrews as possible, and benefit as much from our democratic processes as the current sabbatical team.

While it might be easy to get annoyed and frustrated at the endless bombardment from candidates in town and on social media during elections, the candidates do so because they are passionate about St Andrews and making this a better University for everyone. This is fundamentally why the Students’ Association matters.

No – Emily Allen

With the polls now open for positions in the Students Association elections, much of the university’s focus is on the candidates and who would be the best person for each position The Students’ Association is by no means a new institution, and one which has been engrained in the fabric of university life for many years. Yet with the election of the new sabbatical officers and student councils only just around the corner, it is interesting to consider the question of whether the electable roles are really all needed. How differently would the university function without them?

The principle Association positions consist of Association President, Director of Education (DoEd), Director of Wellbeing (DoWell), Director of Student Development, and Activities (DoSDA), Director of Events and Services (DoES), and Athletic Union President and each caters to a different strain of university life. These positions are well known and publicised. Aside from these positions however, some of the other positions in the Student Representative Council (SRC) and Student Services Council (SSC) may seem less necessary. The more roles that exist to be elected into, the more superfluous each one may seem to become. It is possible that officers for university clubs and societies may seem rather unnecessary when one of the duties of the DoSDA is specifically to liaise and oversee societies and subcommittees.

Equally, one of the DoWell’s roles is to ensure that all students at the university have equal opportunities during their time at St. Andrews, their background not withstanding. As positive as that may seem in theory, in reality such a position is hard to police. As upsetting a truth as it maybe, it remains the case that discrimination and prejudice continue to exist in all walks of life. However, given the sensitive and private nature of such events, it is possible that derogatory comments or actions which negatively affect students’ well-being will never be reported. As far as students’ welfare is concerned, there is a wealth of support present in Student Services and the Advice and Support Centre (ASC).

One of the roles of the DoSDA is offering career advice and support to students. The St Andrews Career Centre is very beneficial to those seeking advice about their future jobs services offered include CV advice and Work Shadowing Schemes. As with the DoWell’s involvement in students’ well-being, it could very well appear that the DoSDA’s involvement with the issue of careers advice is, to an extent, seemingly superfluous. As such, it could seem as though there is job overlap between the Union roles and services already offered by the University.

The role whose specifications would seem to be completely separate from any other entity in university life, however, is the Association President. His or her roles are many and the aim of the position is to provide the best experience possible for students, but there is a gap between what should theoretically be done and what can be done in reality. The position of Social Responsibility that the Association President holds includes widening the diversity of students’ backgrounds, as St Andrews is the university in Scotland with the highest number of private school students. Yet in the last issue of The Saint the vote on whether the university should lower entry requirements for underprivileged students came in at a resounding “no.” Furthermore, the number of private school students accepted to St Andrews has remained fairly constant (and high) over the past years and during the times of previous Association Presidents. Given that the elected candidate only spends one year in the role of President, it is difficult to engineer such drastic change in such a short space of time.

Do we actually need the Students’ Association? Certainly their roles are engineered with students’ best interests in mind, and rightly so.

Yet with so many ports of call for all manner of needs concerning students’ welfare available in the University, some of the roles carried out by the Students’ Association may seem, at some times, unnecessary. Would the university be able to function adequately without them? It is impossible to know for sure. Will the new sabbs effectiveness be more so than the Students’ Association of 10, 50 or 100 years ago? We’ll have to wait and see.


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