Monday 23-11-2015 - 12:52
Students’ unions can sometimes be misunderstood creatures, often ignored, and only given attention when there’s something to criticise them for. I passionately believe that students’ unions play an incredibly important role in our education system but more than that, I also believe they play an incredibly important role in enhancing our entire society.
Our universities and colleges are supposedly places of creative learning. Where individuals grow, where the skills of healthy debate, discussion and disagreement are fostered. Our educational institutions have a responsibility within society – that responsibility could be called lots of things, from knowledge creation to thought leadership. I prefer to say that our institutions have a responsibility to develop active citizens. They have a responsibility to our civic society to be the vehicle through which we facilitate that ongoing discussion of how the world might be better. Students’ unions are fundamentally important to that discussion.
Northern Ireland is not unique in having a democratic system which many are frustrated with, one particularly in which young people feel they cannot relate to or have any influence over. The idea of student representation, the very basis on which students’ unions exist has never been more important. That is because their existence has the potential to set a challenge to other organisations and institutions in civil society to adopt a participative approach and seek to enable those who lack power to have an influence to shape the world.
My own students’ union taught me some of the most important lessons that I received when I was at university. It gave me the space to challenge some of my own deeply held beliefs and it made me recognise that the personal is always political. My students’ union developed me to become more of an active citizen, recognising my own responsibilities to the community.
The student movement in Northern Ireland has been consistent in making a sizeable contribution to society here. Whether it was challenging sectarianism and bigotry, championing the rights of minority groups or building partnerships with others to campaign for a fairer and more just society.
So today, we celebrate the impact of students’ unions and take stock of where we’ve come from because of them. I #LoveSUs I hope you do to.