Later this month Leeds students will be voting in a referendum to decide whether or not LUU should have Liberation representatives for women, BAME (Black and Minority ethnic), LGBT and disabled students among others. Although it seems like an uncontroversial idea it has been met with opposition. Some argue that such a move would be divisive and tokenistic, in the original Better Union Forum some students even responded that it is offensive to the groups in question to suggest that they are oppressed. The fact is that these groups are oppressed in society and still underrepresented within our Union. Although students may like to believe that discrimination does not happen within LUU, 1 in 7 female students experience sexual assault and 1 in 5 Black students experience racism while studying at University. Unfortunately LUU is not a beautiful oasis of equality, and nor is the University. This very paper has reported on incidents of transphobia and sexual assault on campus this year. In terms of representation I’d ask students to consider the diversity of our own executive and existing reps and look at their own schools and faculties and ask how diverse the teaching staff is.
Some have dismissed this idea as just another level of bureaucracy, arguing that students are already sufficiently represented through the Activities exec and the E&D officer. This is nothing more than wishful thinking. To expect the E&D officer, no matter how capable and dedicated they are, to be able to represent and act on the diverse concerns of all these ‘minorities’ is frankly asking the impossible. These groups are consistently underrepresented in all aspects of our society and we should lead by example and ensure that our democratic structures guarantee them representation.
In the elections for NUS Women’s and LGBT conferences earlier this year the voter turnout was pathetically low, signifying the need for better communication and awareness. Our students deserve the opportunity to work with the NUS liberation campaigns fully. Liberation Reps would give these students a more comprehensive and deeper level of representation that we currently have for every other aspect of university life. We have society reps, community reps, course reps but we need to really consider firstly how effective and engaged every student is with these existing representative structures, and secondly ask how these reps can be expected to lead the liberation of students who experience oppression and discrimination.
The Activities reps are the main way in which student’s views are represented at Better Union Forums, which the majority of students are undeniably unaware of. The fact is that not every student participates in LUU societies so are not fully represented. Societies which are more specifically linked to liberation such as LGBT, Cultural societies or FemSoc are not enough, often you have to pay to join and the focus is on socializing, welfare and celebrating events, not on campaigning or policy.
This idea is not simply a gesture towards ‘diversity’ but will help students run truly autonomous campaigns targeting specific issues. They will help the E&D officer consult directly with students to bring more sweeping and general improvements and they will add a much needed voice to our democratic structures and debates. This is not a radical idea, this system has been proved to be successful in other Student Unions across the country and Leeds is falling behind by not following suit.
This referendum is not a top down idea proposed by the NUS or the Union executive, it has come directly from LGBT, Black, disabled and women students. They are saying they feel underrepresented, that they suffer abuse and discrimination, that they want the power to organise themselves and take their liberation into their own hands. If you personally feel like your student experience, and your life, is free from oppression then good for you, but it is ignorant to deny the suffering of other students and an insult to vote No in this referendum.