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Students are being royally shafted

AUSA fights for you – unless it means fighting against the university

By Evelyn Bayerlein and Jake Roslin


Image Courtesy of Jake Roslin


A bit like the British Royals, AUSA issues proclamations about the current state of affairs. Typically, pronouncements about how awful things are. Instead of taking the lead, as you might expect from elected leaders, they suggest that individuals act first to solve these awful things.


Our union is effectively a welfare department of the University, not a check and balance watching over it. Like the Queen, they will support their Prime Minister when it’s crunch time. Both AUSA and Liz receive pots of money every year on the unstated understanding that they will continue playing a role that perpetuates the status quo.


AUSA bureaucracy is Kafkaesque. Committees, councils, working groups, trustees, unelected managers, endless elections, surveys, and inquorate meetings. Any suggestion of student action is thus kicked down the road in the hope it’s forgotten. And like all welfare organisations, if you’ve a personal problem you’re more likely to be offered the email address of another welfare organisation than a solution.


The present annus horribilus is the perfect moment for AUSA to rise to the occasion. While students deal with problems such as swathes of money being squandered renting inaccessible flats, being fobbed off with last year’s Panopto lectures, and (if you’re lucky) awkward labs or mumbling, masked tutorials, AUSA has the perfect opportunity to take a stand.


Even before lockdown, there was no attempt at socially distanced social events, even though some other universities managed admirably.


The University’s reaction to Covid-19 is as befits an organisation where profit, not pedagogy, is the motive. Our academic factory sucks vast funds from the state, parents, banks, and fills its own coffers and those of its friends, the private hall corporations. We undergraduates are merely an unfortunately necessary conduit. Each financial concession UoA made this year (non-retrospective, partial halls refunds, cancelling £75 fees for dismal quarantine food boxes) was made grudgingly, and followed shaming by media and peer universities. Worse was the continued half-promise that face-to-face teaching might return before September, purely to stop students cancelling accommodation contracts. Any tuition refund will be fought tooth and nail — already other institutions are unconvincingly bleating that they’ll go bust if forced to rebate anyone. Our university is rich. The salaries in the higher administrative echelons are staggering. And no matter whoever pays your fees, it’s been found that only 40-45% of that money gets spent on your education, according to The Guardian.


Meanwhile, AUSA ignores the reason student unions arose in the first place: to be perpetual thorns in the side of universities. Student sabbaticals are careerists, and they know that the slightest hint of supporting a protest, picket, or rent strike will taint their CV. With 14% of Scottish students relying on food banks, you would think easing students’ money worries would be AUSA’s priority, but no. Cosying up to senior campus leaders to secure a good reference is key.


A hopeful alternative appeared last semester in Aberdeen Student’s Tenants Union (ASTU). A new national student housing movement, inspired by student successes at Manchester University. But ASTU quickly fizzled out, blaming AUSA apathy. Though like AUSA they were also beleaguered by predilections to discuss, survey and bicker at the expense of actual action.


The failure to secure a No Detriment Policy (NDP) for students should, you would think, be the last nail in AUSA’s coffin. An NDP would protect students from losing their current average grade. We aren't getting the same experience or environment and shouldn't experience negative consequences as a result. Promisingly, a ‘Students For NDP’ campaign gained hundreds of members. Predictably, AUSA tried to own their achievements. Yet however many petitions and Facebook posts are made, the University knows their decisions stand, because real student collective action doesn’t happen anymore, just as it’s needed more than ever.


AUSA costs the University around £1 million a year, but it’s a fee that is happily paid. Why? Because it gives us students the illusion of representation, the illusion that we have a union. Though AUSA is merely as virtual as the virtual events they create. We cannot let AUSA’s existence be an argument to thwart students organising new representative bodies. Right now, even Aberdeen’s academic union, UCU, is considerably more radical than AUSA.


Undergraduates are disgruntled, depressed, and in debt, but few of us were born leaders. These need to emerge. The palpable anger needs to be translated into practical solutions. Concessions are not made to the meek. Protests, picket lines, mass withholdings of rent, boycotts of modules using recycled videos — all need committed organisation. And most of all, ensuring the media know students aren’t letting this exploitation go on any longer.


Covid-19 has created a turning point in history, and nobody really knows what the future will hold. But students away from home have so far suffered the disruption disproportionately, both financially and socially, and been repeatedly ignored. What happens next ought to be up to students’ unions like AUSA — instead, it’s up to you.


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