Why student engagement with Kent Union elections is so low

Turnout for student elections have always been historically low and it seems to be that year on year, that turnout has continued to drop. Turnout for the 2017 election was only 3376, a drop of 1100 votes than the year previous. It clearly highlights the low level of students engaged in politics on campus and the high levels of apathy. It brings into question the legitimacy of the Student Union and whether the President, Vice-Presidents and officers truly represent the needs of the majority of University students. The question lies why only a quarter of Kent’s 20,000 students vote in Kent Union elections?

Kent Union was set up by students, for students, and yet in 2018 there is an organisation which looks to prioritise its own interests and outward appearance over those who the Union is truly meant to be there for. It is no surprise that Kent Union is suffering from a democratic deficit when it is incapable of engaging with students and fulfilling the wishes of students.

It is because of the lack of real engagement on campus with the politics of Kent Union. Students generally feel that the Union does not represent their interests and that is in ineffective in lobbying the University or passing legislation. Furthermore, the Union has been involved in multiple scandals in the past few years, such as the famous Black History Month scandal, which made national headlines. Scandals like these do not help the Union with student engagement as it presents the Union body as incompetent and that they are not capable of representing students effectively.

These issues do not help the Union with student engagement in the elections and there is no wonder why some students do not vote, because incidents, like Black History Month presents the Union as not only inept but out of touch. It may also be the case that students do not engage or associate themselves with the Union because of these events, thus holding them to account.

Engagement through nominations to both Presidential and Union roles also lack true student engagement. This is evidenced by the low number of people nominating themselves to become an officer at Kent Union. This year, only three people are running to become the next President of the Union; one less than last year and much lower than previous years.

A reason why the number of nominees for roles in the Union and the engagement of regular students in the actual election are have dropped could be down to the lack of coverage advertised by the Union itself in its own election cycle. Apart from the odd Facebook post and the Union’s YouTube video for this years election only having 13 views, the Union itself seems more focused on announcing successes in curly fries, as seen on their Twitter account, rather than sharing information about the up-and-coming election.

The little amount of promotion the Union does for the election appears solely on social media, which only involves just over half of the students who currently study at Kent. If anyone were not on Facebook or Twitter, they would not know about the opportunity to nominate themselves or others. Neither are their any noticeable posters promoting the election that is happening between the 5th of March to the 9th; less than 3 weeks from now. This then provides reason to why there is so little engagement of students, as there is nothing noticeable on campus which makes students aware of the coming election. If you were to ask students in the Library or Essentials, it would be a rare sight to see someone who knows when the election is held and then an even rarer sight to find someone which knows that the election is held over the space of 4 days.

However, on a lighter note for the union, an alternative reason to why students are not engaged in the election is because of their success as a Union. Students may not want the Union to change, because they are generally apathetic and content with how the union currently runs and with this so they see no need to actual go out to vote. With this it comes the belief for students that ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’.

It is yet to be seen what the impact of the 2017 General Election will have on Union elections. Previously student turnout has been low (both a percentage of under 24-year olds), only being 43% in the 2015 election and then only 36% in the EU referendum in 2016. Given that youth turnout in the 2017 election was at its highest level in 25 years, the question is still out on whether the new engagement in national politics from the youth will also lead to an increase in engagement in campus politics. Hopefully for the Union it will mean that turnout will increase to a third of the student population.

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