After a week and a half of campaigners accosting passers-by on Eastern Avenue last month, students voted in the 96th Student Representative Council election. Despite the full engagement of the most politically inclined on campus, a meagre 2168 votes were cast — only 5.5 percent of the 39,000-strong student population. Votes were concentrated at the Jane Foss Russell Building and Fisher Library. A mere 39 were cast at Susan Wakil, and the only other campus that received a polling station, the Conservatorium, saw only 73 votes.
This is a troubling state of affairs that goes to the very heart of the SRC’s mandate to act on behalf of students. The student population is incredibly diverse, with 39,000 students over different faculties often having little interaction with one another. In order for the SRC to truly represent students, serving as a common forum to discuss their visions for the University, participation must be increased drastically.
Low turnout is an ever-present issue in student politics, with politically engaged students continuously reflecting on how to increase engagement. For instance, Ariana Haghighi advocated for the introduction of compulsory voting in Honi last year. To grasp why students decide against voting, I reached out to a number of those who avoided the polls. A variety of responses followed, ranging from disinterest in student politics to active frustration at the way it functions. Some expressed a distaste towards what they viewed as unrealistic campaign policies, while others felt intimidated by campaigners who surround polling stations.
“I didn’t vote in the SRC election because the type of climate that student politics creates is not the best for someone living with anxiety,” remarked one student. “In addition, many people who run for student politics, I would argue, are doing so for the wrong reasons and it’s frustrating to see some people be so facetious when there are genuine issues on campus that need rectifying.”
Some students had issues with specific factions. “The conservative caucus on campus is so out of touch with the current status quo that it is beyond laughable … they are nothing but reactionary shills who grift votes from nepo babies.” Another student remarked “if a majority of stupol commits to actually rectifying [issues on campus], then I might vote. Also some factions of the left on campus … can be pretty toxic … if they sort their own things out and stop harassing anyone who comes within five foot of the polls then maybe.” Socialist Alternative was mentioned in particular.
Among the students I spoke to, there was considerable doubt in how much they believed in the SRC in the first place. Another student remarked that they’re “usually not the type to get involved in student politics unless it causes significant change to the already homogenous system,” not really seeing “that much of a point” in voting. Another student labelled persuading people to vote “irresponsible”.
Despite these concerns, the need for the SRC to advocate for student interests is clear. The SRC exists for the very purpose of addressing issues which affect students such as the cost of living crisis, and the continued lack of affordable housing on campus. To this end, the SRC and the postgraduate body SUPRA have done well recently to call for concession fares to be extended to international students. In the recent past, student representatives have preserved thirteen week semesters and maintained five day simple extensions. Such advocacy, relevant and achievable, is at the core of the SRC’s mandate, as are services such as FoodHub and legal advice.
Electoral Officer Riki Scanlan pointed out that turnout grew from last year. “Turnout this year increased by around 10% — which is a strong rate of growth under any normal conditions. Expectations that turnout would or should bounce back to over 4000 immediately are unrealistic, misleading, and unhelpful.” The view that this increase in turnout reflects a student politics scene on the right track is not universal.
2021 SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu is less than optimistic about the future of student politics, believing that “student politics has sort of suffered irreparably” from the pandemic. “I think many people treat it as a world historical tragedy, basically a lot of people unironically believe that they will change the world via student politics which is overstating the case a bit,” he commented, opining that the success of student politics lay in it exposing students to political debate and being “a fun spectacle” that a lot of people could “begrudgingly or not” take away from their university experience. Though Sanagavarapu said that “people probably rightfully see [stupol] as a bit divorced from reality,” he noted the value of being able to engage in political debate within an institution of higher learning.
“A lot of that was lost when things went online [because] the real thing was that stupol imposed itself forcibly onto the public consciousness by public campaigning.”
Scanlan connected turnout to the presence of campaigners and the vibrancy of campus more generally.
“The drivers of turnout in SRC elections, as a voluntary election, rest in campaigner motivation and numbers. This year, motivation was in abundance, but the number of campaigners remained less than in the past. Primarily, this is because of the hollowing out of campus life — from clubs and societies to SRC collectives — caused by the pandemic. It is therefore not surprising to witness a slow growth in turnout as students begin to rebuild the infrastructures and networks of political life at the University of Sydney.”
“The in-person engagement of over two thousand students — plus those who spoke with campaigners yet chose nevertheless not to vote — is a crucial part of that process, and all campaigners this year should be congratulated for their efforts.”
During this year’s SRC election, Labor (running under the “Revive” banner) charged Grassroots with presiding over a decline in engagement with the SRC. Revive’s proposals to increase engagement, in turn, faced criticism. In an election cycle which was dominated by the dichotomy of activism versus service provision, it cannot be forgotten that the SRC has a peculiar and multifaceted role. It is a key part of the life of the University, providing FoodHub and funding this masthead whilst simultaneously involving itself directly in campaigns and advocacy. Students must have faith in its ability to do good to be eager to participate in elections. With turnout low but having increased this year, it remains to be seen whether it will significantly improve — what happens will certainly depend on the actions of our councillors.