Two Views. You Choose: Should SUs incentivise their own elections?

Thursday 05-02-2015 - 14:52

Two Views. You Choose is a feature on NUS Connect where we invite two representatives from different SUs to argue for/against a topic concerning the student movement before letting you vote!

This time, we’re joined by Sarah Bowman (University of Plymouth Students' Union) and Stephen Dowson (Leeds University Union) who share their two views on whether or not students' unions should offer incentives to students who vote in their officer elections.

Agree? Disagree? Have your say by voting in the poll at the bottom of the page.

‘We have to ask what the point is if the contributions aren’t authentic’
- Sarah Bowman, President, University of Plymouth Students’ Union


Last year we asked ourselves a question about what kind of voting we wanted to encourage in our elections. True and honest participation or raffle votes to see which lucky student could win a prize?

Certainly, we took a bit of a gamble when we made the decision to no longer use incentives. As they undoubtedly encourage high turnout in a variety of SU activity, from surveys, to elections, AGMs and much more. However, we have to ask what the point is if the contributions aren’t authentic.

In 2013 we had a total of 5,947 unique student votes in our full time executive officer elections; this was 20.6 per cent of our overall student body (28,302) and one of the highest turnouts that we’ve ever had. We incentivised these elections, just like the ones that happened every year before them, with the exciting opportunity for one student to win an iPad. But what long term benefit does this have to the students’ union and the rest of the student body? I can’t really think of one.

By removing incentives we have seen a significant 50.1 per cent decrease in our voter turnout, as in 2014 we had 2,966 unique votes, which was 10.9 per cent of the student body (27,042), but it has meant that we now have the true voice of students. They are voting for candidates that they genuinely believe are the best people for the job, rather than taking a lucky dip just to be in with a chance to win something.

We will continue not to incentivise and the reason for this is because we made a decision to positively influence and change the culture of participation in elections on our campus. We are committed to investing the money, which we would have spent on one off prizes, into student campaigns, activity and projects, to educate our members about the Students’ Union and how they can get involved, influence and shape their own experiences while studying with Plymouth University.

We believe that this will have a much greater, long term impact on the lives of our students. After all, our vision is to ‘transform lives through experience’, so this is another positive step in the right direction to ensure that we are achieving that.


‘Why don't we reward good citizenship? Why don't we say thank you to people taking part in our democracy? ‘brand’?’ 
- Stephen Dowson, Student Led Change Manager, Leeds University Union

Nothing is free.

That's what we're told all the time. You get a free pen just for enquiring, but you'll get phone calls for the rest of your life. We tell everyone to seek value in everything they do, especially students.

Except when it comes to doing something for us. Our attitudes change. Get involved, vote here, change that. It's good for you. We promise. We have this notion of citizenship and a greater notion that it should be selfless. That we should take part in things for the greater good.

But why don't we reward good citizenship? Why don't we say thank you to people taking part in our democracy, for giving people their vote, for giving their precious time to further our causes? We want more students to vote in elections, they legitimise our movement and can give greater influence to the elected exec. But we don't seem to want to pay for it.

There are four groups of students. Those who will vote regardless, because they always do. There are those who vote because they have been affected by or seen a change the SU has reached. Then there are those outside that sphere. Those who we haven't connected by our work. Where is their benefit for helping us in our elections? Finally, the fourth group, what do we say to those who will never see the benefit the candidates are offering - the third year, the Masters student or the Erasmus student?

We are naturally scared of incentivising democracy. Does it tarnish it? Will those who are there for the incentive just waste their vote?

We offer free printer credits to every student who votes. We give them 20p worth. A tiny sum, but it means they can print their next essay off for free. 54 per cent of students said one of the draws to voting was the free credits. Did those students then just vote for RON and leave?

Quite the opposite. The average voting time of those students is about 12 minutes. 86 per cent of them consult candidate manifestos whilst over half used a policy matching tool to help them decide who to vote for. In essence the credits draws them in, but the occasion makes them take their choice seriously or as a student member of staff puts it 'people don't realise they care until we make them'.

The big fact is this: only 17 per cent of all students who vote claim their credits. And over 10,000 students vote every year.

We see this another way in our decision making forums. 16 random students are recruited to help us make decisions. They get paid £20 to do so. They listen to rep feedback on ideas and vote on these ideas. 72per cent of these panellists say they wouldn't have turned up without being offered £20. But afterwards 78 per cent say they would do it again, for free.

You should lead a horse to water, and sometimes you need some oats.

Should students' unions incentivise their own elections?


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