Self-identification and the question of representation

In politics there is an on-going debate about whether you need to be from a particular community to represent that group’s interests. However, the purpose of the community representation roles within the LSE SU is to ensure that someone from that community is present within the students union to give a voice to that community to address under-representation. In this way it is essential that the candidates come from that community in a way that it is not for other roles, such the education officer, who are there to represent all students.

The Student’s Union policy to ensure this is a process of ‘self-identification’. The appeal of this policy is clear, it ensures that roles are exclusive and avoid insensitive questions about candidate’s background and identity. It ensures, for example, that a self-identifying woman is able to run for the role of women’s officer, no matter what her gender was at birth.

However, there is a question as to whether this policy is effective in ensuring that the desired representation is achieved and whether the implementation of the policy is effective. In job descriptions the SU specifies that such roles are ‘open’ to those who come from the specified community but on nomination candidates are not required to confirm this. A policy of self-identification can be undermined and lead to candidates taking advantage of the fact that these communities may not have a large number of competitive candidates running. We would hope that such things wouldn’t happen within the SU but we all know how strong the desire to build your CV can be for some and it is worth questioning whether a self-identification policy is appropriate when we’re talking about a coveted positions.

Clearly self-identification is the only viable policy for certain roles. For example, I cannot think of an effective way to measure or confirm a candidate’s ‘class’ when considering the role of the social mobility and class officer. We could cite eligibility for government grants, bursaries for free school meals as a child but none of these are in any way an effective measure of someone’s personal experiences of class.

The role of the mature and part time student officer is less clear. It is a binary question as to whether a student is studying part time or not. UCAS also provides a formal definition of a ‘mature’ student as one who is aged 21+ when starting their undergraduate studies or 25+ when starting their postgraduate studies. So it would appear that we could use these formal definitions. But there are nuances to consider. Do we really think that the 20-year old parent with three children should be excluded from mature student events which would allow them to share experiences with other student parents? As President of the Mature Student Society we endorse a policy of self-identification for this reason.

However, the recent MT elections have made me question whether this policy is being implemented correctly for the SU elections, due to conversations I’ve had with candidates. I think it is vital that the SU makes it more explicit that these roles are for members from the given communities to avoid any confusion otherwise. Some simple adjustments to try do this would be asking candidates on application to confirm that they identify with the group they are representing, ensuring that this policy applies to all candidates, not just those whose identity isn’t immediately obvious. This would not be a complete solution but at least provides candidates to acknowledge this aspect of the role. When endorsing a policy of self-identification, ultimately, we have to rely on voters to identify who would represent them best.


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