The Students’ Union Class Representative election season came and went without much fuss two weeks ago. You may have noticed the rather haphazard polling station in the Arts Building, laden with multi-coloured ballots manned by friendly SU-types beckoning people over to cast their vote. You may have lingered at the table, eyeing up the lists of names, observing the popular shoe-ins and surprise “dark horses”. You likely took note of burgeoning course rivalries that would provide ample gossip-fodder amongst friends later on. You may have even voted, but only if you were lucky enough to be in a course whose Class Rep position was contested in the first place.
In all likelihood, though, you probably didn’t pay any attention at all to the elections. And, to be fair, why would you? Class Rep elections lack both the relatively high-stakes, personal drama and sophisticated campaigns that make the Sabbatical Officer elections such an integral part of the Trinity experience.
Elections or popularity contests?
Moreover, a deep-rooted cynicism towards the Class Rep system pervades the student body, and not without reason. Widely viewed as “glorified popularity contests” (the words of a former Junior Freshman Rep) the elections are seen to hold little sway over the running of college, or over student life as a whole.
In the majority of races, it is perceived that the candidate with the highest profile, the biggest social media presence, and the perfect balance of nonchalance and eagerness in their hilarious Facebook candidacy-announcement post tends to cruise to victory. Indeed, in many cases, rumour and speculation often lead to a particularly popular student virtually assuming the title of “Rep-elect” weeks before polling takes place. It’s hardly surprising that many potential candidates are discouraged from running when their defeat is touted as a foregone conclusion.
A broken relationship with the SU and College
Then there is the question of the Reps’ actual engagement with the SU. Trumpeted as a pillar of Trinity’s policy of student governance and engagement and hailed on the SU website as “the voice and body of the Union”, Class Reps are allegedly in the position to “direct the SU’s activities” at Council meetings, acting as a “spokesperson for their class to College”. Yet several current and former Reps claim that the systemic failings of SU Council preclude any form of serious engagement from the student representatives. One former Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) Class Rep cites serious failings of Council as a forum for open debate and discussion. “At Council, Sabbatical Officers basically tell the average Class Rep what to do and how to vote. Very few people dissent from [the Sabbats’] party line”. Even something as innocuous as where Sabbats sit during Council has a major impact on voting behaviours. According to the same source, Reps are expected to act as mute assenters in often stagnant and circular debates. “The Sabbatical Team sit together in a row up at the front and raise their voting placards in unison. So everyone in the lecture hall sees how they’re voting and by proxy, how they expect us to vote. If anyone’s on the fence about an issue, they will obviously follow the lead of the SU Executive”.
Can we truly extoll the virtues of a democratic Students’ Union, then, when one of the principal means of affecting change available to the student body can be boiled down to vote-by-rote decision-making? Numerous Class Reps, former and current, label Council meetings as “inefficient”, “tedious”, “painfully slow”, and “dragged out”.
One former psychology Class Rep claimed that, despite multiple objections made to the SU Sabbats regarding funding cuts to college mental health services, the views of the course she represented went unheeded. Similarly, in the Music School, Class Reps have been struggling with departmental authorities for an expansion in their Study-Abroad programme: an essential element of college life for so many, but strictly curtailed for music students hoping to broaden their horizons. A former AHSS Rep spoke of a fundamental communications breakdown between modern languages departments and their respective Class Reps, branding it “by all accounts… a complete disaster”.
Despite the lofty claims of the SU, it seems that Class Reps often have more meaningful interactions with club promoters and hoodie salesmen than with actual college decision-makers. Of course, there are countless examples of dedicated Reps going above and beyond in the interests of their classmates, but when the bureaucratic mess of college governance hinders their best efforts, it is easy to see how the average Class Rep fights an uphill battle for change.
Who runs for Class Rep?
So, if the system is so dysfunctional, what motivates people to run in the first place? Cynics among us would waste no time in answering: “The social status. Plus the free weekend away.” Indeed for the many Reps who go no further in their line of duty than co-ordinating a WhatsApp group, a questionably good night out and the ubiquitous class hoodie, status and a weekend junket may indeed be their only motivation.
Undoubtedly, there are the hack-ish types that see Class Rep as the first stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal of a place in the Executive, or a Sabbatical officership. These are the types that furtively whisper among themselves how it is likely that a future SU President will have started off as a lowly Rep, and are eager to impress upon their friends that they have the current Sabbats’ contact numbers saved on their phones under their first names only.
Then there are the Class Reps who are really eager to affect change, to have the voices of their classmates heard, to advocate for their interests. Unfortunately, all-too-often these are the students discouraged from running not only by the ambitions of more “popular” candidates on their course, but also by backward mechanisms of SU and College bureaucracy.
Unsurprisingly, the narrative of self-advancement surrounding the position of Class Rep causes a massive drop-off in candidate recruitment during sophister years. In their final years of study, without any future prospects of a CV-boosting Executive position to lure them in, there is very little to incentivise students in higher years to commit to the Rep position, or even to consider running. According to a former School Convener: “The level of interest in those years is very low, with most races not even being contested by more than the required amount of candidates.” Surely this gives rise to a significant democratic deficit in the SU, whereby freshman students are represented by someone who at least wants the position, while sophisters are lucky to have much of a choice as to who represents them at all.
Regardless of whether a Class Rep won a hard-fought victory in a competitive election, or were simply the only person who applied, the position can really be a sweet deal. An all-expenses paid weekend away, drinks receptions after Council, not forgetting the all-important hoodie, plus a foot in the door of the SU. One would expect that Reps are under some obligation to their classmates in exchange for these benefits, but in reality, the SU has no mechanism keeping tabs on the effectiveness of individual Reps in their roles. In the words of one former Rep: “The SU has no way of making sure Reps work in return for these rewards, so why bother?” The Class Reps who, having sat through the seemingly endless Tuesday night meetings, then go on to relay the information and decisions back to their courses seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
All things considered, there can be no doubt that the system of Rep elections fails Reps, the SU, and the student body as a whole. In terms of adequate representation, democratic decision-making and effective communication and interaction between students and college authorities, the Class Rep mechanism is scarcely fit for purpose.
Yet to all new Reps I offer my congratulations. May your interactions with Fruit of the Loom wholesalers be fruitful, may your course night-out in The Palace pass without hospitalisations, may your weekend junket be fulfilling and hypnotist-free. Hopefully at least some of you will be able to wade through the quagmire of Council politics and college intransigence, and bring about the reform and progress this office so desperately needs.