After almost a fortnight of incessant campaigning, political point scoring, twitter snipes and malicious rumour spreading, The University of Exeter has become the first university to vote to remain affiliated with the National Union of Students (NUS). Just. With the overall final result being decided by just 144 votes, Exeter was clearly hugely split over the issue, but many students will undoubtedly just be pleased to be able to get back to revision in peace.
To hold a referendum on something with such a potentially big impact on the student experience slap-bang in the middle of exam season really beggars belief. As such, a turnout of over 30 per cent – the highest of any student idea at the University of Exeter’s Students Guild (SU) – was impressive, but I can’t quite help but feel that the total was only this high as a result of the sheer intensity and persistence of both sets of campaigners in pestering people to vote, and as such doesn’t necessarily make Exeter’s students as politically engaged as the Guild would like you to believe. I would hazard a guess and say that for most students, this referendum was little more than an inconvenience disrupting their revision and clogging up their social media feeds.
I don’t think by any stretch of imagination that I was alone in thinking “Again? Really?” when the referendum was announced back in February. Exeter had a referendum on the subject as recently as December 2014, and voted decisively to remain with the union. Hence, to hold another referendum during exam season seemed totally nonsensical. It was no surprise, either, to see the Leave campaign storm to an early lead during the first few days of voting; these were the students who were the most invested in seeing Exeter disaffiliate. It was only after around four or five days that the Stay campaign began to gain momentum, with much prodding from the Guild’s hardworking sabbatical team in Exeter, and the NUS nationally. This suggests that I wasn’t alone in being utterly disinterested and apathetic towards the prospect of either leaving or remaining in the union.
As a white, middle class male and final year student, I probably would have been one of the least affected students had Exeter decided to vote to leave the NUS. Nonetheless, I found it incredibly hard to see what difference there would be to your average student, beyond prices going up and Exeter losing influence nationally. I don’t intend to go into too much detail about the arguments for and against leaving, partly because I don’t even fully understand all of them myself, but also partly because they only really matter to the most engaged of students – the majority of Exeter’s students simply didn’t know or care enough about the NUS to feel exceptionally strongly either way.
It was also easy to be disenfranchised by the nature of campaigning throughout the referendum. Campaigners were frequently nasty, sanctimonious, condescending and bitchy, and that was just on social media. The whole referendum was treated by some as little more than an excuse to score political points and further their own interests, and this made it very easy to feel indifference towards the entire process. Unfounded allegations were thrown from both camps, in a state of affairs that was all too similar to the mudslinging we see nationally on a daily basis. Is it any wonder that young people are politically unengaged? The malicious and petty nature of student politics is enough to put even the keenest of students off, let alone the rest.
However, on balance, I’m relieved that Exeter voted to remain in the union. Mainly because of the negative impact leaving would have had for the sabbatical team and Guild employees both this year and next, many of whom I consider to be close friends, but also because the referendum represented a choice between certainty and the unknown, and I take comfort in the fact that Exeter’s students were sensible enough to chose the former over the latter. The NUS isn’t perfect, but to use the analogy a friend of mine put on Facebook, neither is the government. But when a Conservative majority (or Labour majority if you’re right-wing) is voted for, you don’t threaten to leave the country. You stay, and you criticise, and you vote for someone new. Hence, although it makes very little difference to me as an individual, I’m glad Exeter saw sense and decided to remain and campaign to reform the NUS from within.