A Student's Union that's not for Students
Does anyone actually like the Student union building?
by Jake Roslin
Three weeks in, I’m pretty impressed with the University of Aberdeen. There’s a thriving student media, active green scene and mind-expanding academic societies. There are quaint lanes, campus cats, and cool lifts in the library. There are permanently lively pubs and cafes where, in this small community, you will always bump into your new friends.
Much less impressive however is our students' union, AUSA. Not the hardworking student sabbaticals, activists, organisers, and volunteers, but the uninviting building and the bureaucracy that lies behind it.
Most SUs in the UK are the crowded center of action for students. Games rooms to let off steam in after lectures, bars where legendary nights begin with cheap prices, and inviting decor. Ours was like that too once upon a time. Since the university consolidated itself at King's College, a large buzzing city center venue has been replaced with various temporary homes. If the present one resembles a bit of a university administration building reluctantly carved out for us, that's because it is.
The Bobbin and Blue Lamp now compete as "unofficial SU" with cheap drinks, plenty of noise and free rooms for social events. Thousands of ‘Hillheaders’ are now enticed instead by the university-run Headspace, and the Starbucks on College Bounds has queues out of the door, chatty students serving and half your course on their morning mochas. Yet despite being more central than any of these, our dismal union is an unloved backwater.
We have a single union-run food and drink outlet (that's about ten less than Glasgow). An estimated £200,000 was somehow spent on Union Brew this summer. With a view of traffic, the vibe of a quiet waiting room and not particularly enticing prices, it’s hard to see what that money was spent on. On my last visit, the sole customers seemed to be workmen and university staff - the last people you'd expect to want to go into a student's union. Yes, some of us do want a relaxing place to sit and study, but there are plenty of those already on campus.
Popular SUs usually have a non-corporate vibe. My ideal union would be filled with murals, recycled furniture, games machines, and dim lighting. There'd be at least two bars, a sports one and a more alternative space, and a large performance room doubling as a club venue. All the good bits of the current union would be there too - Bookends, The Corner, student media - but they wouldn't be inexpensive looking glass-partitioned offices. Indeed the whole place would be refurbished cheaply, cheerfully and colourfully - you'd know you weren't in the Infohub. It'd be open till at least midnight and there'd be late shuttle buses back to halls. But most importantly everyone who worked there, from bar staff to security to managers to number-crunchers would be current students.
My ideal union would be filled with murals, recycled furniture, arcade machines and dim lighting. There'd be at least two bars, a sports one and a more alternative space, and a large performance room doubling as a club venue. All the good bits of the current union would be there too - Bookends, The Corner, student media - but they wouldn't be in expensive looking glass-partitioned offices.
AUSA is currently run by several career managers on not insignificant salaries. While they aim to do their best for students, do they really know what 2018's undergraduates want? Surely it’s better to employ a large collection of current students, every one of them part-time. They would be elected and would replace not only the present management but also the sabbatical positions and indeed everyone else working for AUSA. Even if you needed a team of 100, this would be a much more democratic system, and would also mean those students who put in so much work for no financial reward now, such as club and society presidents and those in charge of media, could be rewarded, and our block grant from the university, plus profits from the building, would only benefit students.
How this change could happen, I don't know, but the status quo is boring for us and a great union would help the university’s reviews too. It might take a breakaway alternative student's union to be set up. Maybe even one of the "unofficial" SUs could become the real one. But we need to have a building that is ours and somewhere that we want to be and the people with the passion to run it already exist, because they're you and me.
Let's strive for a union we can't wait to go to after lectures; a union that saves us money; a union where we make the decisions and where we have the opportunity of earning money for our hard work for it. A building which would never be mistaken for a leftover corner of Aberdeen University.