‘Too Lazy to be Energetic’: An Honest Guide to the SU

Nick Miao

The Students’ Union prides itself on being a student-led, student-owned organisation. But how much do you, the students, know about your Union? Perhaps a better question might be, do you care? To find out, Andrea and I stood outside the Print Room Cafe on a freezing Friday afternoon and gathered some data of our own.

Our findings are as follows. First, it is clear that student life at UCL is largely shaped by the Students’ Union. 66% of respondents said they were familiar with the Union, with a further 70% saying that the Union has been present or very present in their university experience.

But this does not mean that students are aware of what the Union is, or what they do. 32.3% of respondents were unaware that art societies were run by the Union, whereas 14.3% were unaware that the cafés were run by the Union, even though part of this poll was conducted under a Union-branded tent right outside the Print Room Café.

In terms of its democratic structures, only 12% correctly answered that there are five sabbatical officers (sabbs) this year owing to one vacancy. The other 88% either did not know or made a wild guess, with responses ranging from 2 to ‘a hundred and something’.

Apart from Union Affairs Officer Mary McHarg, who was identified by 21% of respondents either by name or as someone they’ve ‘seen in emails’, almost no one could name or identify the remaining sabbs. In order of recognition, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Ahmad Ismail, was described as being ‘a very nice man’, Activities and Engagement Officer, Aria Shi, was ‘seen on posters in the maths building’, and lastly, Education Officer, Shaban Chaudhary, was identified as ‘the person with awesome eyebrows and beard’.

Analysis by Andrea Bidnic

What our polling seems to suggest is that while students know of the Union and are very happy to use the services it offers, they typically do not care enough to find out how it works. In other words, the vast majority of students (at least from our very limited sample size) are indifferent to the Union and apathetic to its politics.

But who can blame students for taking such an attitude to their Union? With its lack of a central presence on campus making it more forgettable than Geroge Harrison, and a democratic structure so comically confusing that no one can concisely tell you how this place really works, it’s no wonder why nobody gives a shit about the Union when they have real degrees to worry about. Case in point, I gave it a go myself because I do what Rishi calls a ‘rip-off degree’.

The Union was founded in 1893 as University College London Union (UCLU), and rebranded to Students’ Union UCL in 2017 (Unfortunately, we have been asked specifically not to refer to the Union as SUUCL or ‘suckle’). The Union is the collective body – independent of the university – representing your interests here at UCL. With an annual budget of over £10 million, the Union is one of the largest students’ unions in the UK, offering some 320 clubs and societies and a Volunteering Service. It also operates a number of commercial outlets from cafes to bars to shops, and a highly knowledgeable Advice Service, all of which are led by a robust team of elected student leaders.

Every Spring, the student body elects six Sabbatical Officers, or ‘sabbs’. These are full-time, paid positions (earning £27k a year) with very fancy titles that mean very little to the average student. They work on their manifesto projects with the support of the permanent staff at the Union. The sabbs also have regular meetings with UCL senior management, with two of them sitting on the UCL Council (aka UCL’s very own Politburo). Together, the sabbs determine the strategic direction of the Union for the year in which they are in charge; this is a problem because ‘direction’ is a novel concept for the sabbs. This is especially true when there are clashing personalities and beliefs over key issues, such as support for the teaching strikes, which is often.

And then there are the 17 part-time Student Officers, each of whom represents a different part of student life, ranging from arts to sports, and sustainability to housing. Regrettably, these crucial parts of student life are not important enough to warrant a paid role or any actual power. I found this out the hard way during my time as Accommodation Officer, when people wrongly assumed that my authority extended anywhere beyond writing emails starting with ‘sorry to hear about your situation’. Five of these Student Officers also hold the title of Liberation Officer. Liberation Officers lead their respective Liberation Networks. These are the Disabled Students Network, LGBQ+ Network, Trans Network, POC (People of Colour) Network, and the Women’s Network. Networks are a bit like societies because they do everything that a society does but they are also not societies. To this day, nobody can tell the difference.

Less exciting but perhaps the most important are the Student Trustees. These are student representatives who sit on the Union’s Board of Trustees and its various committees – Finance, Governance, Risk and Audit, and Remuneration – alongside sabbatical trustees and appointed, external, trustees. Notably, Trustees are meant to be apolitical: their role is to ensure that the Union has the ‘necessary financial and structural stability to carry out its aims effectively’ and not to make big political changes. Conversely, this lack of political ambition has made the Trustees so dull and boring that nobody would really miss them if they were gone. In 2015, the Union cut the number of Student Trustees from 6 (per article 34.1 of the Articles of Association) down to 4 with little to no opposition – and why should there be? A quick look at the contenders for Student Trustee last year tells you everything you need to know. One candidate opened their manifesto with the declaration: ‘A week ago I had no idea that this existed and going into it I’m not quite sure what it entails’. They won with 286 votes.

Finally, you have your Academic Reps and Hall Community Officers. These are your local student reps in your halls and in your degrees, and they represent your voice in their respective areas – faculty or department for Academic Reps and UCL Accommodation for Hall Community Officers. Fun fact: until last year, Hall Community Officers were called Hall Reps and received a couple hundred pounds off their rent, courtesy of UCL Accommodation. UCL, of course, never liked this arrangement and had always sought to cut this out of their budget even back when I was just a pesky Hall Rep, because we cost them a great deal of money and were just a little bit annoying to deal with on the whole. Today, Hall Community Officers are unpaid (in line with other reps), although they can apply for a ‘small events budget’ to host hall events.

So, these are your main characters: the sabbs, the student officers, the trustees, and the student reps. Kudos if you are still reading.

The foundational organs of Union democracy are the three Policy Zones – Activities Zone, Education Zone, and Welfare and Community Zone. All students can submit policy proposals to any of these zones, but only officers and reps designated to the zone are allowed to vote on them. Each zone also sends one (1) representative to the Union Executive. Ultimately, the zones can pass whatever they want, but they don’t really get the final say on anything.

This is because real authority at the Union rests with the Union Executive. It is the primary method by which the Union decides on any policy, whether by ratifying, amending, or throwing out policy proposals that have come from the various zones. All five Liberation Officers (see above) also sit on the Executive to ensure cross-sectional representation. The Sustainability Officer also gets a pass. Everyone else is simply not important enough and should try harder.

But the final boss of Union bureaucracy is actually the Board of Trustees, which holds the real power. As is the case in any registered charity in the UK, the Board is, by law, the most powerful body in the Union, wielding the power to override any policy they deem to be financially or structurally harmful to the Union’s long-term interests. In other words, their sole purpose is to stop the Cheese Grater Magazine-reading, tofu-eating wokerati (particularly those in the Union Executive) from bankrupting the Union with their fantasy economics. Consequently, the majority of Board members are not elected, but rather real adults who, we have been told, can absolutely be trusted with the Board’s unlimited power. So far nobody has questioned this because no one has bothered to check what the Board actually does, including many of those who ran for Student Trustee.

Luckily for us, the Board is run by very mild-mannered accountants who understand their boundless authority as a fun little hypothetical, not dissimilar to the King’s royal prerogative to refuse the royal assent on bills agreed upon in the Lords and Commons. Yes, technically His Royal Highness can do that, and technically His Royal Highness can invade France tomorrow if he so pleased, but it’s very unlikely that he will. This is because the King is a tree hugger and a coward. Such is the nature of Union democracy, with the real adults praying that they will never have to step in in case one of us gets any funny ideas about how best to do their jobs.

Analysis by Nick Miao

Of course, I don’t mean to paint a picture of a dysfunctional Union. But that was certainly the case just over ten years ago when the Union was plagued with a series of political scandals and financial woes. In 2014, we reported that the Union projected a staggering deficit of £426,000, more than double from the previous year. At the time, the budget for democracy and campaigns was ‘almost double that for clubs and societies’. Our editors argued then that this represented a ‘fundamental conflict of what the Union is for: whether it should act as a campaigning body or primarily provide services to the students it represents.’

In the years that followed, the Union found their answer to that question. In 2016, it splashed out £68,125 to rebrand to its current name in a bid to shed its old reputation for sounding ‘like a trade union [and] not fun’, according to its Head of Communications, Alex McKee.

In an interview with The Cheese Grater conducted in November 2023, Union Affairs Officer Mary McHarg prided the Union today as the ‘co-curricular arm of the university’. She tells us that the range of services that the Union offers, from the bars and cafes to volunteering and advice to all of the clubs and societies, is ‘the most important thing we do’.

But what is the cost of becoming the ‘co-curricular arm’ of the university? No longer primarily a campaigning body, the Union can appear, at times, a bit of a pushover when it comes to advocating on issues deemed sensitive to the university. For example, it was virtually absent throughout the scandal surrounding the construction delays at UCL’s new student accommodation in Stratford and, in recent years, its support for the teaching strikes has amounted to little more than a yellow ‘thumbs up’ emoji to the UCU.

There is a silver lining to this: the Union now has a much better relationship with UCL, allowing it to strike a record-breaking £10 million funding package in the form of the Student Life Strategy last year. But is that all it takes to buy out every last shred of principled politics at the Union?

Mary insists that the Union isn’t losing its political flavour: ‘That doesn’t mean to say I don’t think campaigning isn’t important; it is. […] It just looks very different to how people used to campaign in the SU’. She tells us that there is currently a big push within the Union for effective influence, giving the example of how she met the Chairman of Barclays a few weeks ago. ‘That was my campaigning, like getting my way into that room and talking to the Chairman of Barclays about why students don’t like Barclays […] But that’s not the sort of conversation that could have or would have ever happened a couple of years ago’.

The truth is that ‘Student politics, as it stands, nationally speaking, is a bit of a mess’. Over the past decade, student unions around the country have had to adapt to a changing political climate, with a government that ‘doesn’t care about students’ and ‘hasn’t for the past 13 years’. The Conservatives’ antithetical attitude towards student activism has meant that the ‘role of student unions in general, and what they exist to do, is changing over time’. Ultimately, she said that ‘until there is a change of government, influencing at this level is difficult’.

Nonetheless, Mary tells us that ‘Even though the government isn’t listening to us, that doesn’t mean we’re going to shut up.’ She tells us that the Union is currently working with the NUS and other Russell Group SUs to build up student influence again, ‘going to party conferences and trying to get student matters heard by the people that matter’.

Noble as this may sound, the Union – like most student unions around the country – continues to struggle with low student engagement. If anything, a staple of Union electoral politics is that nobody really gives a shit. Twelve years ago, we reported on how the Union struggled to fill seats at its AGM even after it had lowered the quoracy to just 112 students. At the time, we wrote, ‘The biggest problem faced by UCL Union is that no one could possibly care less’.

Today, things are looking a lot better. Last year, the Union recorded the highest number of voters in any student election in UK universities at 10,400 voters for the third year running. But less is clear how much of this is down to substantive improvements in the Union’s governance, and how much is down to the rapid increase in student numbers – 51,058 as of 2022/23 – as the university tries to make up for the cuts in government funding.

According to Mary, ‘One of the big problems we have is that students don’t actually realise the scope of what the Union does.’ She adds that ‘For a long time, our issue has been visibility and articulating for students all the services that we offer’.

Still, could the same not be said with the Union’s approach to activism? Their latest strategy for behind-closed-doors campaigning may have gotten them into some high places, but what good is that if no one knows what is happening? Indeed, what good is the Union if the actions of our elected representatives cannot be properly scrutinised out in the open?

There are, of course, lots of people at the Union who care passionately about students and are eager for change. But there are also just as many people who do not. Indeed, if there’s one certainty in student politics, it is that there is never a lack of mediocre careerists posing as ‘student leaders’.

Last year, we reported on the aggressive campaigning tactics of the previous Welfare and Community Officer, Umair Mehmood, which included having his army of supporters shove QR codes in your face at the Student Centre until you vote for him on the spot. This comes in stark contrast with his actual achievements during his tenure, which amounted to little more than a pilot scheme in bookable sleeping pods – first proposed ten years ago and previously piloted in 2019. Our former Investigations Editor Alfie Pannell had commented from the hustings, ‘If Muhammad is as apt at representing students as he is at collecting votes, then we are in for a productive year’. Having worked alongside him as a student officer last year, I’m not quite sure if that was the case.

Nonetheless, Mary insists that most sabbs do take their job seriously, and that the weight of responsibility is quickly felt during training. ‘Naturally, this is going to be felt at different levels by different people’. Anecdotally, she admits that ‘when I first became Activities Officer, I don’t think I fully realised the scope of what my role entailed’. Even today, as Union Affairs Officer, she ‘often feels the stress of the job, sometimes more than I frankly should’. Other sabbs, however, ‘handle it easier and find a much more chill time, depending on what their role is’.

In reality, the line between a ‘chill’ sabb and an incompetent sabb is often a blurred line. In part, this is due to the lack of transparency about what each sabb is working on, with some sabbs having comically vague ‘priorities’ such as ‘support[ing] students with their work-life balance’. In part, because student media societies – including The Cheese Grater – have not been doing enough to hold our elected officers to account in recent years. Without proper media scrutiny of our sabbs, students often end up relying on official communications from the Union to find out what our sabbs are up to – communications that are designed to paint a rosy picture of the sabbatical leadership.

But times of crisis can reveal a person’s true character. And, every once in a blue moon – to the great delight of the Investigations Team – our sabbs plunge themselves into all sorts of troubles that give away the kind of people they really are. For example, that time in 2021 when the sabb team’s decision not to support the strikes caused so much outrage, that the student body triggered a referendum and, by a publicly humiliating landslide, forced them to reverse their stance.

At other times, sabbs will just admit to us what they really think, for free. Activities and Engagement Officer Aria Shi, speaking to a member of The Cheese Grater, off-handedly said that she was ‘too lazy to be that energetic’ when compared to an active member of artsUCL, whom she described as ‘very enthusiastic about the Union’.

But elected officials should be judged by their record in office, not on the basis of a single off-handed remark. Accordingly, it will be interesting to see whether our new sabbs are actually interested in making real, lasting, and impactful changes. Changes that stem beyond, say, pilot schemes for bookable sleeping pods – something that the Aria is also pledging to do, making this a bit of a tradition for our sabbs.

Perhaps I am being too cynical, and the injection of funding from the Student Life Strategy will open up new avenues for the Union in terms of both activities and advocacy which, need not be mutually exclusive ends. If anything, the sabbs will find it very difficult to tell us ‘I’m afraid there is no money’ with a straight face and ask us to settle for mediocrity, as they have done for far too long. I am worried, however, that they might just do that anyway, but I hope to be proven wrong.

Additional reporting by Andrea Bidnic