By Clemens Schally
Compare UCU to its early days and you will notice a big difference. What was once a liberal playground for pro-active, open-minded individuals seeking an alternative path of personal and academic development appears to be increasingly characterised by inertia, apathy and a lack of innovation. What happened that the UCU community has, in a way, lost the spark that made it great? And more importantly, what can be done to regain it?
“We could be so much stronger if we were more united and more willing to voice our opinions”, Thijs Ringelberg, chair of the UCSA explains, recognising the problem. Sure, the number of committees is impressive when compared to the size of the student body, but certain facts cannot be denied: abysmal event attendance rates, lack of candidates for elected positions and empty ASC focus groups. Recently, the UCSA’s brainstorm event, was attended by a grand total of one person – me.
The problem is threefold. First, it is symptomatic of elements of European culture and general contemporary social trends. Secondly, it is a product of the relationship between the people in power – the Governing Body – and the students, and thirdly, of UCU’s student culture.
“There is a general European trend to depoliticise issues, which also permeates campus. If discussion cannot be avoided, someone who argues is seen as ‘troublesome’. Arguing and becoming passionate is perceived as harming societal ‘harmony’,” Dr. Francesco Maiolo, Fellow of Political Science explains.
Similarly, Thijs argues: “There have been many occasions in the past where other study associations might have organised a strike, but here at UCU we would refrain from it.”
Additionally, frustration with the way the Governing Body interacts with the students appears widespread. “What you see at UCU is some sort of frustration with the hierarchy, it might not be done intentionally, but there is the feeling that there is something in the structure of UCU where student opinion is not being taken seriously,” ASC chair Vera explains, voicing a general concern with rigid bureaucracy and lacking transparency.
“The only contact I have with College Hall is when I pick up my mail,” Maarten Klap, another 6th semester student adds. Feelings like these are common. The Governing Body is not seen as a supportive institution, but rather as “a sort of ‘Black Box’, which consumes emails and spews out information and decisions,” as Thijs Ringelberg, UCSA chair argues. What happens inside remains a mystery to most.
“Whatever you want to do, even if takes no additional funds, it requires years of planning. We have lost the dynamism of the early days,” Dr. Maiolo continues, “Similarly, a wider problem with the generation of people currently in power is that problems are not seen as what they really are, but rather as a question of interpretation: ‘If you feel bad about something, maybe try looking at it from a different perspective’.”
In a situation like this, it is no wonder students will see the situation as a given and see no point in trying to change it. “Individuals sometimes try, but at a certain point they get frustrated and stop,” adds Vera.
However, there is more to it than that. Students who are given the trust to act responsibly will act accordingly. Take away that trust and you create a student body that behaves in the way you expect them to behave, but will not put their hearts behind it and learn to be the leaders UCU aspires to educate.
“If you take your students seriously, if you engage with them, if you honestly want to hear what they think, that will help a lot. And I think at UCU we have lost that a bit. We have lost the realisation that our students are qualified and responsible individuals. They deserve respect and they deserve to be listened to”, Vera argues. Examples of this distrust in students’ ability to manage themselves include the attendance policy or GPA requirements for liberties like living off-campus.
Dr. Maiolo agrees: “We need to stop treating students like high-schoolers”.
Thijs goes even further: “It’s like an all-inclusive hotel. You sign here, you sign there, shove tons of money at the administration and assume everything is good and you will be out of here in three years with a proper degree, once you have signed up, it feels weird to question it.”
Blaming everything on the power structures however, will not reveal the full picture. What is it in the cultural microcosm that UCU is that might stop students from being truly involved? Several factors are highlighted in conversation with other students.
“UCU has a bit of an egocentric culture”, Oscar Jones, a sixth semester student argues, “It’s lacking a bit when it comes to the greater good.”
Again, this ties in with quite an Americanised, neoliberal view of education: it is not so much what you learn what is important but rather the degree you get and the experience you can put on your CV.
Olivia Haas, a first semester student, has the impression that “people see UCU as a transition period, it is something happening whilst they are waiting for the future.”
Another big issue on campus is anxiety: “Anxiety about failure is so widespread. People are so scared of taking a step outside of what they are used to,” Oscar explains.
High GPA requirements are one cause of this. Combine that with the constant high workload, which might be complemented by committee work and other extracurricular activities, along with the intense pressure to finish UCU within three years; no wonder people are unwilling to invest themselves in common causes they do not see direct personal benefit in.
The current situation is clearly dangerous. Any society displaying inertia, an unwillingness to recognise and deal with problems, will face a rude awakening. UCU might sooner or later lose its competitive edge against newer, more dynamic Universities and colleges. After all, the added chances a proactive and altruistic community gives you is a big reason to choose UCU over a bigger, anonymous university.
But, you might ask, is there anything we can do about this situation? Sure, it might seem hard. Initiative needs to come from all sides. The Dean has already announced his intention to make decision-making more transparent, but the results remain to be seen . Teachers should also do their part: “We need to stand up and give our opinions. Students need stimulation, so that they themselves can stand up and think for themselves,” Dr. Maiolo argues. Thijs feels like information about students’ options is key: “In fact, relevant platforms are already in place, students just do not perceive them as such. For instance the GAs, they are basically like a parliament. But students just think of it as a ceremony rather than as what it actually is.”
Change is possible, we just need to want it. While the management, teachers and student representatives need to do their part (ASC and UCSA have taken first steps), we students cannot just idly sit by and hope for the best. We, the student body, need to speak in a united voice, recognise the issues that are important to us and act upon them.