There has been a lot of activism on GW’s campus over the past year, from responding to a former University president’s remarks about sexual assault to addressing ongoing student complaints about City Hall.
But student opinion has extended beyond issues of the GW community, too, to the grand jury decision in Ferguson, the decriminalization of marijuana and the launch of the “It’s On Us” campaign, to name a few. GW students, true to form, have been extremely vocal in their support or condemnation of these political events.
However, while political rhetoric is ever present around campus, action is limited. With the recent, notable exception of the GW Ferguson Coalition, political action regarding national issues has been largely confined to either individuals or student organizations with just a few central issues in mind.
The power of student political action would increase dramatically if we were to work together, advocating based on a democratically reached consensus. The Ferguson Coalition, which was able to bring together more than 20 groups and set specific goals, shows how possible this is. At GW, it could come in the form of a student union.
As the now-old stereotype persists, our student body is one of the most politically engaged and active ones in the country. Still, there is clearly a gap between what we say and what we do, since there is no system in place that organizes us to influence real change. A student union, or a form of one at least, is key to bridging this gap.
A system like this – granted, an imperfect system – exists in the U.K. already, and has for decades. Like GW’s Student Association, British student unions were formed to represent the interests of their students in conversations with the administration.
That’s about where the similarities end. Unions are far more robust than the SA: They provide support for students as well as owning and operating social venues such as bars, cafes and sports facilities, all of which are subsidized and therefore affordable to the student community.
But the most drastic difference is that while the SA is meant to be apolitical, student unions are deliberately political.
For example, last year, the Edinburgh University Student Association – the student union at my home university – passed a motion declaring the student body as feminist, reaffirming the union’s commitment to the equality of the sexes and challenging the patriarchal society in which we live.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for the corrosion of the SA or even for the politicization of the system, but rather for a separate entity that can provide a systematic way for GW students to voice their political concerns.
To some, this idea may seem like an unattainable goal, something that sounds good on paper but is too good to be true. In the U.K., though, those in power pay attention to student voices. They especially listen to the National Union of Students, a confederation of 600 student unions from across the country that represents more than 95 percent of all higher education unions. It ensures that each union isn’t acting on its own, thus giving a voice to nearly 7 million students.
For example, following a vigorous NUS campaign, the British government halted its plans to cut funding for resources for students with disabilities and promised to address the issues that the union had raised.
Admittedly, the national union isn’t always successful: After the government hiked tuition fees for British universities and instituted nationwide cuts to student benefits, the NUS organized a national protest with nearly 50,000 students. Despite this colossal effort, the rise in fees and most of the cuts were enacted.
Although in the short term, the goals of the NUS were not achieved, the Conservative government’s choice to not listen to students could come at a high cost in the long term, as many students will feel reluctant to re-elect a party that failed to represent their interests.
Of course, the political landscape in the U.K. is substantially different from that in the United States. Unions have been entrenched in the British system since 1871, providing the basis for the establishment of the Labour Party, which brought social and welfare issues to the forefront of the political agenda. And politicians have committed to student unions in particular time and again – though the first student union was established as early as 1884, the role of the unions was enshrined in British law through the Education Act in 1994.
The historically strong presence of unions in general has in part determined the success of student unions. This structure is deeply ingrained in the culture of British universities and won’t spring up overnight in a robust form at GW or other American schools.
And British political views are relatively narrow in scope compared to American ones – the two main parties would both be considered left of center in the United States. It seems somewhat unlikely that Republicans and Democrats on GW’s campus would be able to agree on all too many issues.
But perhaps this would be the exact strength of an American student union. It would allow a rare space for students of all ideologies to debate, hash out issues and perhaps find solutions that represent the majority of the GW community despite the apparent polarization.
That is not to say that a student union would function solely as a breeding ground for cross-party debate. Since all students have the right to vote on motions, a student union will allow those at our school who don’t identify with a particular political ideology or even a particular student organization to make their voices heard on issues they are passionate about or that affect them personally.
Whether motions are practical – calling for a policy change, like in tuition hikes – or symbolic – asserting a student body position on a political issue – the direct influence on the national political climate can be great. Whether we like it or not, the voice of the next generation should and does carry a special force.
Elinoam Abramov, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.