TO: MARTIN ZARANYIKA, UBS PRESIDENT
UNION OF BRUNEL STUDENTS
Dear Mr Zaranyika,
I have been a student at Brunel University for over three years. Throughout the time that I have spent at Brunel, I have made a number of observations relating to the problems the Union faces that I feel should be raised. I believe there are some deep-seated issues that face the organisation which must be properly addressed and tackled. If they are not, the Union risks losing an integral, thriving part of university life for its students.
Firstly, the degree to which the Students’ Union is self-contained must be recognised. It has, I feel, become an organisation that looks inwardly and acts in a way that prioritises and protects its own interests and not the interests of students. Obviously I understand that it is a business, and therefore must remain a financially viable commercial enterprise. However, the reason this charity has been set up - to support and represent students - must not be forgotten. It should not place more importance on profits over student well-being. Profits should be made whilst ensuring students are receiving the best possible service and support and not at a detriment to the people it is designed to represent.
To begin solving these problems, the Union should reduce the divide between itself and the main University body. I understand they are separate entities but they need to coexist. The way the Union acts can either reinforce decisions undertaken by the University or, conversely, it can contest them. This has the effect of forcing students into choosing where their allegiance lies when they want to host an event or put on an activity for students - with the University or with the Union? If they choose the University they face the Union’s refusal to help - including the denial their advertising power. Brunel students frequently suffer the effects of this divide and it has to stop. The University and the Union should be universally supportive, not constantly conflicted.
Furthermore, many students find that it is difficult to get the Union to support an idea if you are not part of a club or society. Even if you are, there are vast amounts red tape that must be crossed in order to realise the proposal. The Union does not sufficiently empower or support individuals who are not part of a club or society – which is detrimental. However, I find the problem is deeper and even more worrying. The Union consciously will not support or promote any student-led events that occur outside of it or its affiliated parties because of ‘conflicting interests’.
This seems to lead to two possible conclusions. Either the Union’s financial stability rests on a knife’s edge with any possible loss of business proving potentially catastrophic. Or, the Union has evolved to a level of jealousy and paranoia that it begrudges any success had by any person or group that is not affiliated with it. This has the effect of stifling any ‘opposing’ student-led events or initiatives that have no links to the Union.
Due to the nature of events that are organised, a large proportion of these are linked to the arts. An example of this reluctance was the Union’s disinclination to advertise the student-led event Vinyl Live. Luckily it was a very successful event, but this was in spite of the Student Union, not because of it. The Union’s refusal to promote events like this could be perceived as directly oppressing arts and culture within the University.
Whilst I am sure this is not the case, I believe it is a very concerning position for the Student Union to place itself in. Brunel University often likes to tell its prospective students about how multi-cultural the University is - with over one-hundred-and-ten different nationalities. How can such statistics be promoted when the Union does so little to reinforce it by embracing student-led, multi-cultural events and initiatives?
Instead of creating a corner of the University where student schemes can be tried, tested and nurtured, the Students’ Union has privatised as many outlets as possible, resulting in the loss of functional space for Union activities; and any glimmer of hope for competitive pricing has been shattered.
Another issue that must be addressed is the level of censorship the Union applies to Le Nurb and other Union-controlled media outlets. I understand that, ideally, a balanced opinion of issues should be presented. However, there must be a line where heinous acts are discussed - regardless of unbalanced views.
Last year, many students found themselves disenchanted by the way one elected member of the UBS Student Leadership Team behaved towards a student on social networks and also on a particular occasion in student assembly. When Le Nurb published an article detailing the incidents, they were asked to remove the article from their website - despite being within their right to hold the elected representative to account for their behaviour.
It feels like Brunel University tries to cocoon itself within an idealistic environment by reducing the prominence of media that may unearth strong opinions amongst different groups of people. Instead of contesting this, the Union perpetuates it. This is illustrated by it refusing to publish articles which could be controversial. It attempts to shield its students from important current affairs which is evident from the initial rejection and reluctance to publish an article about the conflict in Palestine this year. The Union requested that an article was written to counter the views. I believe this was a very poor decision because, in this case, it would have involved an individual from Brunel openly supporting Israel’s violation of international law. The Students’ Union should focus on invoking strong feelings and creating a forum where they can be discussed in a positive, healthy manner and not ignored.
I find the Union’s apathetic approach towards national politics very worrying indeed. Especially when you consider the important upcoming general and local elections - affecting the whole country and our local constituency. I am aware there are initiatives related to political engagement but, the visibility of these is poor. They are not advertised properly and they are often seen by students as ‘exclusive’. It is problematic that these initiatives have to be actively sought out which means, unless people are passionate, they will not choose to get involved. Unfortunately, this allows people with a casual interest to be discouraged because the Union does not go to sufficient and consistent efforts to attract these individuals. The students studying on this campus are supposedly the future of the country. I agree that academic success is very important, but how can you expect them to have a meaningful influence on the country’s politics when national political engagement is not endorsed.
Brunel University, and more importantly the Students’ Union, needs to distance itself from the capitalist attitude it has adopted. It is quite obviously unsustainable and it is negatively affecting students with rising costs. The problems the Union is facing are reversible, but it requires a serious rethink of attitudes and the direction it chooses to pursue. The Students’ Union will only become stable if it is sustained by organic growth. Student ideas should be embraced with defined long-term aims and not dropped as soon as they fall at the first hurdle.
The live music scene at Brunel is an example of this. In May 2014, when UBS Nightlife asked what events students would like to see this year, numerous people said they wanted more live music. The Union obliged and hosted ‘Locked In Live’. The turnout was poor for this event and as a result, the Union is now reluctant to host another, despite there being a demand for it. If the Union took this idea, repeated it and nurtured it - using student feedback - it would end up with event that students had vested interest in. This comes as a result of the students’ involvement in shaping the event.
To make this a Union Brunel students can be proud of it needs to place students back into the heart of the organisation. It must focus on recapturing the campus for student-led activities and reducing the corporate monopoly Sodexo has on it. It must also focus on tackling the political apathy that is seeping through the young generation by encouraging the Union to actively and consistently support student initiatives. Especially those regarding the political identity Brunel students choose.
Some of these solutions may take many years until the effects become visible but, many of them can be implemented now. However, it must be understood that these positive changes will only happen with the Union offering positive encouragement to students and by acting in the altruistic way for which any genuine charity is originally intended.
This article is an anonymous letter to the Union Of Brunel Students, published in Issue 2 of Le Nurb on 10th of November 2014. You can read the UBS President's response to this letter here.