Student engagement is a two-way street

Last year, roughly 29.5 per cent of undergraduate students voted in the Students’ Union Executive and Undergraduate Board of Governors Representative election. That’s an embarrassingly low turnout when you consider the size of the student population; in a campus of around 37,000 undergraduates, only 9,250 of them bothered to take five minutes on their laptop or phone to tick off a few candidates. This 29.5 per cent voter turnout, however, was the best the SU has had in years.

The fact that this abysmal statistic was cause for celebration speaks to a larger issue in campus life: most students simply don’t care about the Students’ Union (let alone their faculty, department, or residence associations).

Now, we might want to be charitable and say that some students don’t want to vote without being informed about the candidates and issues, and don’t have time to make sure they have the knowledge they need to make a defensible choice. But how hard is it really to get informed? The Students’ Union website lists bios of each candidate, campus media offers quick text and video digests of candidates’ platforms and performance at forums, and the candidates themselves (if they’re doing it right) have bite-sized platform rundowns on their websites and social media. Acquiring at least a cursory knowledge of each race should, I think, take an hour tops.

A common line I hear from peers when I reference student governance is, “But what does the Students’ Union do, anyway?”

The easy answer is that, well, the SU does a lot. From selling donuts to playing movies to lobbying the government to freeze tuition (nice), whatever bones one might want to pick with our SU, it undeniably does some generally useful and worthwhile shit. This easy answer is the one I’ll give, accompanied by a sardonic eyeroll, if someone who hasn’t done any research asks this (rhetorical) question.

But buried in this remark is an attitude of cynicism and resentment which has a grain of truth: that student governance is bereft of vitality and meaningful student engagement. The hard answer is, well, that there are many worthwhile things that the SU does not do that perhaps it should do. From organizing protests to making bold asks to actually empowering marginalized students, our SU could go deeper in its advocacy and wider in its outreach. This is the answer that someone who knows and cares about students’ political problems might be identifying in silence.

Therein lies the problem: apathy has two sources, one being earnest dissatisfaction with the operations and tenor of campus politics, the other being, well, the presence of apathy itself. As student politicians engage in more and more navel-gazing, students become more and more apathetic. But as students at large become more apathetic, student politicians acquire more license to navel-gaze.

Breaking this cycle of cynicism requires a concerted effort from both parties: candidates must bury the buzzwords and substantively connect with the student population even after being elected, and voters (and could-be voters) must seek out political knowledge and challenge their would-be representatives on the campaign trail. A healthy democracy depends on the activity of each citizen in public life. Like any democracy, student governance depends, critically, on the labour and care of both elected officers and the voters who have the power to elect them.

Jonah Dunch

Jonah Dunch is in his third year of a BA Honours with a major in philosophy and a minor in drama. Aside from his work at The Gateway, Jonah writes, directs, and acts in plays. He eats your clicks for dinner.

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