Time to dismantle AUSA
Our student’s union is living a lie
Photo courtesy of Jake Roslin
by Jake Roslin
The current proposal to scrap AUSA’s Student Council and replace it with online student voting is sensible and overdue, but doesn’t go far enough. Our union, of which Council is only one small part, is a top-heavy, bureaucratic nightmare. An organisation whose mechanisms puzzle even those who work for it. A Kafkaesque conglomeration of committees, trustees, overlapping responsibilities, conference jollies, cancelled events and style over substance. And all this in an organisation whose turnover, and role in the life of the average undergraduate, is negligible.
Many UK SUs are big commercial operations. They run multiple bars, food outlets, shops - AUSA doesn’t. Unlike Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, most services Aberdeen students use are provided by the university itself or the local commercial sector. Don’t be taken in by the “Union” sign on that building at the edge of campus, AUSA runs but a fraction of what’s inside, and none of the food outlets.
Yet, AUSA receives around a million pounds a year from the university. To fund permanent, high-salaried management, whose portraits you won’t see by those of the lower-paid student sabbatical officers. A Trustee Board, controlling the purse-strings - like Council, often unable to recruit its members. It’s something of an in-joke in Aberdeen’s student media corridor, cheek by jowl with AUSA’s massive office, that time-killing banter is all that ever seems to happen there.
The intentions of the elected sabbaticals are, usually, very good. But the events organised and services offered by AUSA simply don’t engage the average student. This is often sad, especially on green matters and in political engagement. But undergraduates, generally, want fun, and AUSA sure as hell isn’t any good at that.
As usual, AUSA’s present denizens will respond to this article to tell us it’s not their fault, but history’s. Until 2004, there was a huge union building in Gallowgate in the city centre with multiple bars, cafes and god knows what. You can still see half of it, largely derelict, above a Starbucks, a big Next store sitting on the demolished back bit. It was abandoned when the university moved out of Marischal College to consolidate operations on King’s Campus but failed to create a promised replacement union here. Instead, for 15 years the university shifted AUSA around various buildings with bits of free space and student “going to the union tonight” loyalty evaporated. Yes, plenty of non-commercial activity still happens. We have sports, media, RAG and societies, albeit with far fewer clubs than similarly sized universities. What we aren’t, is a big-turnover organisation, and we don’t need an expensive backroom pretending we still are. How much of that million went to your society this year, and how much to an AUSA suit you’ve never heard of? Couldn’t the university somehow spend this money on, well, students instead?
The most recently published accounts of AUSA (2018, they’re online) make depressing reading. From the assertion that the Chief Executive’s salary (last advertised at £64,000) is “in line with the average earnings of student association chief executives” (pity our turnover isn’t) to the depressingly short list of “achievements” and “future plans”, to the depressingly long list of Trustees who “resigned during the year” (like Union Council, people know a sinking ship when they see one).
Does this mean Aberdeen University should give up on students’ extra-curricular lives? Become, like in Germany, purely about educating, with students’ social existences entirely unconnected with their university? No, that would be a great shame and an insult to the students who fought, on the back of the labour union movement, for the first student guilds more than a century ago, and in the massive expansion of higher education and equality-minded student democracy in the later 20th century. But we can certainly use the university’s handout far more efficiently.
Here’s the plan. A Societies Union, a Sport Union, CCE (Campaigns, Charity & Environment), and a Student Media Centre. A student sabbatical officer, on a reasonable, student loan equivalent, salary for each of the four. The university grants each appropriate direct funding each year - no massive administrative rump to filter the money through first (to all accounts very, very slowly), no hefty pen-pusher salaries to be syphoning off first. Give Union Brew and the stationery shop back to the university, who are far from perfect, but have the nous to run them. And maybe, in some way, the hundreds of thousands of subsidies they save can benefit students. Maybe badly needed social study space. More PCs. Travel grants. Academic prizes.
But please can we stop pretending we have a student’s union, in the traditional sense, at Aberdeen? I partly decided to study here due to the promotional fallacy perpetuated that we do. AUSA needs to stop living a lie, and the university needs to withdraw their life support and fund those extra but more than worthwhile student activities directly.