During the OUSA Executive Election Forums that were held last week there emerged a clear division in the ideological outlook and approach held by the candidates in the hope of bringing about institutional change. That division was between those intent on working with the university to bring about that change and those that were determined to unite in opposition to them - it’s one of pragmatism vs. activism. The result of the election, therefore, could see a decisive shift in the direction of OUSA; a return to what some call the “glory days of the association.”
I find myself in a difficult position during this election period for three main reasons: firstly, because I cannot vote this time around by virtue of having recently graduated - which sucks badly; secondly, because I’ve been so critical of the slow progress and inaction of the last few OUSA Executives and have sought to expose and advocate change to the processes now ingrained within the association, but find the alternative now proposed potentially less appealing, for reasons I’ll outline by the end; thirdly, because I fucking hate tickets, and the candidates I consider to be preferable in this race are almost entirely running on tickets.
Over the past few years we’ve seen OUSA adopt a defeatist attitude to student-related issues, instead sitting back and accepting that nothing can be done while increasing their service-provision role for fear of offending the university. For example, 2015 OUSA President Paul Hunt didn’t attend a protest of university staff cuts because he was organising the Hyde Street Keg Party, 2016 President Laura Harris was accused on many occasions of being ‘in the pocket’ of Vice Chancellor Harlene Hayne, and current OUSA President Hugh Baird has actually been in support of the plethora of university cuts that have presented themselves this year, believing their result will be beneficial to the student body, as well as not endorsing political policy in an election year despite promising to do so throughout the year (see page 8). These are just examples of this attitude, but are symptomatic of the more widely held approach.
It hasn’t always been this way. Last year marked 20 years since arguably the most famous student occupation of the Clocktower, one that lasted for an entire week in protest of the continuing increase in university tuition fees, and which OUSA proudly joined with the student body on. Seeing the contempt that a large number of the candidates this year hold for the diminished advocacy role of the association and the university’s encroachment on student values, we may be on the brink of returning to the associations’ radical activist roots, for better or for worse.
The split is also distinctly seen between current executive members and a new set of students hoping to be elected onto the executive. Is it just that the current executive are not ambitious enough, overly weary of breaking down the ongoing ‘amicable’ relationship between the association and the university? Or is it a realisation that the status-quo is the only way to bring about change, albeit incrementally, since the introduction of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM), that can only be discerned through experience of the bureacratic nature of the role the executive find themselves adhering to once elected?
Is an activist-approach feasible for OUSA in the post-VSM landscape?
In 2011, when the Education Amendment Bill (the vessel for VSM) was being considered by parliament, Critic wrote that the “passage of VSM will dramatically reduce income to students’ associations around the country, and is likely to result in a substantial reduction in services offered by associations”. Although the initial point was correct, the result was that, at least for OUSA, there is now more service provision than there was prior to the legislative change, and we have seen a stripped back advocacy role to accommodate this. This is largely because the university now allocates almost the entirety of the operational funding that OUSA survives on and will predictably cut funding in the face of a growing activist role by the association. Many, including this year’s executive, strongly consider it to be self-defeating for OUSA to storm the registry building to protest their opposition to that agenda.
This issue of Critic has two op-eds, one by Sam McChesney and another by Joel MacManus, on this week’s OUSA Executive Election, and neither shirk from telling it as it is. Have a read and see whether they help to clear the haze that surrounds student politics, and hopefully you’ll be in a fully informed position to consider the route you want to see OUSA take into its 128th year.