Majority of students fail to engage with student politics despite looming elections

By Toby Holloway

Gair Rhydd has conducted a survey investigating Cardiff University students’ interest in and awareness of student politics.

In the run up to the student elections at the end of this month, the survey attempted to gauge how much of an involvement Cardiff University students have, or want to have in the future, in the student democratic system.

The annual SU elections, which determine next year’s Students’ Union President, as well as the six Vice Presidential positions, have an infamously low turnout, with only 6,555 students voting in last year’s elections.

Gair Rhydd’s survey aimed to discover how interested students were in student politics, and how important they thought it was in university life. The survey also asked if students had attended any student politics events whilst at university, such as the Annual General Meeting (AGM) or a Student Senate meeting. Participants were also questioned over whether they would like to be more involved with student politics in the future.

The results showed a lack of enthusiasm among most students for students politics, with 28.4 per cent of respondents ticking ‘1’ on a scaled of one to ten when asked: “How involved do you tend to get in student politics?”. This option was selected twice as much as any other option, the next two most selected options being ‘2’ and ‘3’. Only 75 of the 176 respondents selected an option above ‘3’, showing a definite lack of interest in engaging with student politics.

However, around 42% of participants stated that they had attended a student politics event, the majority of whom had been to the AGM. A popular reason for attending the AGM was students’ representing their society, some stating the fact that they “had to” as three members from each society’s committee are required to attend. Other students attended in order to find out “what’s going on at uni” and one person stated that “Voting on policies is important to me at the student!”.

A number of other students also singled out the fact that they were “interested” in the meeting as the reason for them attending it.

Many students expressed opinions over how student engagement with SU politics could be improved. One said: “more university staff (lecturers, etc), encouraging voting and actually behaving as though it matters, because it does. maybe more publicity and an emphasis on student politics as central to university life rather than just as an aside for most.”

Some mirrored this view, with one student saying: “I think it just needs a greater awareness campaign, as most students don’t really know anything about student politics except the SU Presdident and other Sabbatical Officers! I don’t think it’s very clear what the scrutiny committee or student senate have the power to do unless you specifically look for it.”

Another argued: “I don’t think engagement needs to improve, but I think the people involved to be more open minded. This in itself would improve engagement, for example I tend to not talk about politics because certain groups who disagree with me then become defensive and make me not want to participate.”

Some felt that the world of student politics was difficult to penetrate, stating: “Easily accessible, explain to us HOW we should be engaging, what our engagement would mean.”

The Student Senate voted for a motion that will give campaign officers more publicity in the union in a hope to raise engagement.

When asked how important students believed student politics to be on a scale of one to ten, the majority of students selected ‘7’ as their choice, suggesting that despite a lack of engagement and awareness, many students do believe that student politics is important.

This points towards issues over the way student politics at Cardiff University is structured, advertised and carried out, as many students do not feel engaged with the current system despite recognising the importance of having a democratic process at university.

Another respondent highlighted student politics’ role in representing the student body to the wider world, saying: “[student politics] shapes the unions policy/outlook/future and also how Cardiff Students are to appear to the public as well as the media.”

One also said: “How else can the union and university grow and change as students see fit? How else can we unite as a body of youths and academics to effect any change? How else can we create a safe, educated, informed, fair, and open-minded platform upon which to vie for the values we seek to promote and instil in the world?”

This 3rd year student declared that they had been to many AGMs and student senate meeting, and rated the importance of student politics as 10/10.

One student, who claimed to be a student rep under VP Education, Mo Hanafy’s, leadership, expressed dissatisfaction with the sabbatical officer. They said: “Mo has been a useless VP Education but our little rep team has achieved amazing things totally independent of his ‘leadership’. If strong individuals appear in one place or another then great things happen – I can’t see how the SU politics has affected any part of my student life.

“Essentially, it all depends on the people in each job, not the politics or how they got there.”

The 1st year student also said that they had only attended the AGM because they were a student representative and “had to”, showing that even some of those most involved with student politics were dissatisfied with some of the ways in which the SU is being run.

This Gair Rhydd survey, whilst valuable in representing student attitudes towards SU politics, must be taken with a pinch of salt, as some biases are likely to have occurred.

For example, 42 per cent of respondents were in their 3rd year at Cardiff University, with only 11.3 per cent of those who participated declaring themselves 1st years. This may have affected the results as those students who have spent more time at university are more likely to be interested in and engage with student politics.

This being said, it is possible that if students from all ages were represented equally with more 1st years taking part in the survey, the results could show an even lower level of interest in and engagement with student politics.

Additionally, the results could have been affected by the fact that students who are interested in politics are more likely to have responded to the survey, meaning that students’ interest in student politics could potentially be over exaggerated.

Finally, Gair Rhydd asked participants if they would like to get more involved with student politics in the future. 42 per cent selected ‘no’, whilst another 38 per cent said ‘maybe’. Only 17 per cent of students said that they would like to get more involved with student politics in the future, suggesting that some effort must be made by the powers that be to get the student body more engaged with the politics that surround them.

Failure to do this could result in another low turnout in the forthcoming student elections.