The Students’ Union presents itself as an all-inclusive, empowering and supportive organisation with the ultimate purpose of protecting and representing students’ interests.
While the efforts to do so by the people working at the SU should be thoroughly recognised and valued, then the failure to follow their own mission statement and values should be similarly criticised and condemned. One of the ways the SU promotes inclusivity and empowerment is through supporting the activities of student-led societies.
The SU offers various kinds of support including financial help, free promotion, skills training etc. Yet this support is only provided to the select 85 societies that are affiliated to the Students’ Union. The societies’ cap, which allows a maximum of 85 societies, has become hugely problematic since it actively inhibits and limits the creation of new societies and thereby contributes to the SU’s failure to support and empower new student organisations.
the failure to follow their own mission statement and values should be similarly criticised and condemned
While some may argue that new places open up within the 85 society limit all the time, then the reality of creating a new society and getting affiliated is much more complex than it seemingly might appear. Starting a new society requires 30 signatures, which through social media can be acquired easily enough. The difficult part begins after submitting the paperwork. The SU accepts the application only when free slots open up and this might take up to 1,5 years. Especially since the waitlist for getting affiliated can get quite long.
The newly affiliated Philosophy Society for example had to wait over a year to get affiliated, due to getting rejected on their first try. There are currently around 10 new societies waiting to get affiliated and not all of them will be able to do so. The people deciding which societies get affiliated are the committee members of the current societies, therefore when societies with very different aims and activities have to compete for the same places, the ones which match the interests of the societies’ committee members the most often get chosen. This however, is highly undemocratic and not at all representative of the student population’s wishes or interests. The obvious lack of selection criteria has led to a situation where the campus does not have any political societies.
The benefits of getting affiliated are overwhelming. Even after gathering the 30 signatures the SU still treats the unaffiliated society as an external organisation to the university. This means that the student group gets no access to the regular tools of promotion like for example getting a table at the Activities Fair. Unaffiliated student groups are treated as businesses on campus and therefore have to pay hundreds of pounds if they just want to get a table outside the library in order to promote themselves and get new members. This means that while the affiliation process may take over a year, then during that time there exist no means of getting new members or promoting their activities, which leaves most of the societies intentionally disempowered and insignificant by the SU.
The situation becomes even more ridiculous when one considers that there is no central reasoning to even have a societies’ cap in the first place. If we take the 50 top universities from the Sunday Times league table and rank them according to the absolute number of societies (excluding sports societies) then Bath ranks 43rd out of 50. While one might argue that this is because of our smaller student population then the statistics showing the number of societies per 100 students do not improve the situation. The University of Bath ranks 44th out of 50 in the number of societies per 100 students. By comparison Bristol ranks 15th with the total of 260 societies, Exeter 24th with the total of 200 societies and Southampton ranks 27th with 220 societies. No other Students’ Union has a societies’ cap and rightly so.
If the number of societies on campus is limited to a maximum of 85, then people feel disempowered and are less motivated to create new societies, especially since they receive no support from the SU prior to affiliation. There are no reasonable arguments that explain why the SU is currently actively limiting student activity on campus. While some arguments could come down to the lack of financial resources, then it is not clear how the Bath SU is significantly poorer than other students’ unions around the country. Moreover when the underlying reason for the societies’ cap is really the lack of money, then it doesn’t excuse the denial of access for other SU resources.
The survival of a society often comes down to recruiting new members – the SU page, the Freshers’ Week and the promotion tools given to societies are one of the most effective ways to do that. Even when the SU lacks the resources to allocate a budget for a larger number of societies, then it does not cost anything for the SU to allow new societies to collect membership fees from the SU page. Therefore there are no actual good reasons to inhibit and suppress student activities on campus.
The side-effect of this policy has been the recent depoliticisation of the campus. Societies seem to be only getting affiliated if they solemnly swear to remain apolitical and not to lead any student campaigns on campus. Societies can only be platforms for different views but cannot take any political stances themselves. An incumbent Societies Executive explained this by saying that a few years back they had a problem with a far-right group and therefore to make things simpler political societies are de facto banned from campus. This however makes little sense.
Racism and the oppression of minorities can be dealt with on an ad hoc basis. Similarly just because there are violent and oppressive groups in the society, the state does not simply ban people’s right to assemble and mobilise, since that would violate people’s fundamental rights and limit overall public discourse. Another example would be offensive external speakers at universities. Just because on rare occasions offensive speakers come on campus and spread hateful messages, does not mean that the university should ban all external speakers indefinitely.
Racist and discriminatory messages are a very small part of political discourse and can be effectively countered with arguments. More importantly though they do not justify the banning of student mobilisation behind shared political views and causes. Yet the current societies cap allows exactly that. Due to the limited number of free places only the most neutral and apolitical societies get elected, mostly because of the post-politics mentality of the Students’ Union.
The implication of all of this is that the Students’ Union fails at its mission, which is to ‘help students get the most from their student experience’. The Students’ Union also fails to follow its own vision, which is to ‘inspire communities of actively engaged students’. Without societies, especially political societies, there can be little engagement from the student community. The SU promises inclusivity by ‘offering fulfilling opportunities for all students within a friendly and welcoming community’, yet this is exactly something that the societies’ cap actively inhibits.
With most degrees lasting only three years, waiting for almost half of that duration to get one’s society affiliated is not inclusive, empowering or justified. The failure to abolish the societies’ cap, either due to ignorance, laziness or just mere wish to keep the campus apolitical is completely unjustified and shows the lack of concern for the best possible student experience by the SU.