It'll always be Mandela House to me.

It’ll always be Mandela House to me.

It feels like barely a day goes by at the moment without some corner of social media getting worked up about something that’s happened at a university. The Student Union at the University of West Loamshire fails to pass a motion condemning bad things and suddenly various Tweeters who’ve not even seen the motion in a form longer than 140 characters are demanding that they repent of their sins, while a part-time student officer at Manchester Dumbledore University says something mildly controversial in the SU Bar on a Friday night and Facebook is filled with people sharing petitions demanding they resign immediately.

As first a student, then a student union employee, I spent much of the 90s involved with student politics and what strikes me about most of these outrages is how much they’re just run of the mill student politics, blown up out of all proportion. As I’ve written before about the National Union of Students – and anyone conflating NUS and individual unions is holding up a sign saying they don’t know what they’re talking about – the student politics that gets reported and gets people into such a frenzy is peripheral surface froth on top of all the actual work in making university life better for students that student unions do.

Luckily for me and others, we were at university when what happened on campus usually stayed on campus. In the unions I’ve been part of, worked in or dealt with, something that seemed absolutely outrageous to those involved was happening every week, but without social media to pick it up and circulate it to a wider audience looking for evidence to back up their illusion of being at the forefront of the Great War For Civilization Itself, they were mostly forgotten about in a few days, just in time for the next round of campus nowtrage to begin.

There are two important things to remember about student politics. First is that it rarely directly touches or involves 95% of the students at an institution. They’re happy to use the services (particularly the bars) provided by the Union, but don’t really care who runs it. The second is that student politics is basically a soft play version of real politics, giving those who do choose to get involved the chance to have some of the experience of being involved in politics without having to be concerned about any of their mistakes causing harm to anyone.

If you ever want to see political consensus in action, look to a student union, where just about everyone agrees that the Union should supply all the various services it does (from bars to welfare to societies and more) and that the University administration should provide more for students. The structures within unions are generally long-running and stable enough that whoever gets elected to ‘run the Union’, they can’t do much to mess it up and damage it. When candidates in student union elections aren’t running on external political platforms, the differences between them are about the order of priorities – do you want more IT facilities or better sports facilities first? Should the Union be focusing most on reducing shop prices or bar prices? – rather than principles.

Undergraduate life in British universities is centred around giving you both the space to learn and the space to make embarrassing mistakes in that gap between youth and adulthood. Student politics is just another part of that process. You can use it to learn about representing people, helping them and negotiating with the powerful to get better things for those you represent, and you can also use it to learn about all the good, bad and very ugly ways in which people with different views on the world interact. The lower the importance of an issue, the more intensive the debate about it is, and there’s very little in the world that’s of less importance than a student union motion about anything happening outside the confines of the university it’s in.

Student unions have been pompously debating important issues in an essentially meaningless way since they were first founded, and throughout that time there have been people willing to put forward ridiculous points of view on them. University is traditionally a time when people experiment with a lot of things, including their political views, and there are a lot of people – myself included – who are very glad there wasn’t a social media lynch mob ready to descend on then back when they were saying the ridiculous things. In the same way that most people don’t ever spend as much time drinking after they graduate, student politicos generally recognise that what you thought was absolutely true when you were nineteen was actually a sack of pretentious and ill-thought-out drivel.

That’s why actual adults getting angry over what silly things some students playing in the ball pool of politics have said or done is a ridiculous over reaction. It’s people who were able to spend their time in higher education without worrying about the spotlight of attention falling on them gloating about their ability to focus it on their successors and pretending they’ve never made mistakes. If you think universities are about learning, then don’t start screaming every time someone makes what you think is a mistake.

Update: Flying Rodent has a good follow up post to this, explaining more about why nowtrage at students continues to happen.