Student politics: where biology trumps brains

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan

Topics Politics

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The Independent ran an anonymous article on Friday calling for white males to be prevented from running in students’ unions elections. The piece, which has since been taken down, blamed students’ apathy towards student politics on the dilettantism of the young white men in charge. Claiming that student politics had always mirrored Westminster politics in its white-male-dominated character, the writer called for women and members of ethnic minorities to be given power on the grounds that they’re the only individuals capable of enacting change at universities. White men, the piece concluded, ‘it is time for you to bow down’.

It was a shame that the Independent quietly pulled the article, because what seemed like an extreme viewpoint is actually an accurate representation of the current views of aspiring student politicos. Many UK universities held their student union elections this month, which presumably provoked the anonymous writer to pen his/her tirade against white privilege. However, his/her argument is old news. In fact, student elections have now become so concerned with equal-opportunities policies that it is difficult to find a union that doesn’t adhere to the popular demand for multicultural representation.

In other words, student politics already resembles an identity-obsessed clique, its members playacting at politics in their safe spaces and designated areas. The most common proposals in students’ union election manifestos tend to be either more liberal toilet signage or cheaper beer, which indicates the lack of substance to SU politics. Alongside this, the National Union of Students has recently created specific officer roles to represent women, black students, disabled students and LGBT students, and it encourages universities to do the same. The problem with student politics is certainly not one of unequal representation.

The lack of interest among the majority of UK students in anything to do with their SUs that doesn’t involve booze is precisely down to the failure of SUs to do anything of consequence. It’s difficult to maintain a political conversation when the audience changes every three years, but it’s easy to make a splash. This is the prevailing desire of most student-elected officers: to get in, get a good name and leave after a year with a bumper sticker on their CVs. Fair play, but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with politics. That SU officers suffer from delusions of grandeur, and believe themselves to be at the forefront of radical politics in the UK, is down to their ability and desire to shock. Campaigns based on identity, which play on politically correct contemporary fashions, pull in tweeters and headlines, but certainly not students.

The heralding of everything that is not white and male is not a new idea at universities. Indeed, it has been a trend in teaching on many courses in the humanities since the Seventies and Eighties. However, what the Independent article has done, much as the closing down of an abortion debate with a male panel at Oxford did, is to expose just how central the issue of identity is to student politics today.

Student politics, dominated by identity, is in a wretched state. Those trying to be elected to their SUs seem to assume that what you are is more important than what you say and do. If young people continue to think that biology trumps brains, it won’t just be student politics that becomes farcical. It will soon be a problem for the adult world, too.

Ella Whelan is a writer based in London.

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Topics Politics


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