At the time of writing this election cycle is still ongoing, and there is still time for my prediction of “one of the candidates will be revealed to be a merman” to come to fruition. While we wait for that to happen, however, I believe one of the most important things to happen this year was the illuminating way PTO candidates have been treated and promoted in comparison to people running for full-time Sabbatical Officer roles.
PTOs have typically struggled to get the attention of the wider student community. I consider myself more plugged into the world of YUSU than most through my involvement in student media, and even I would struggle to name a number of YUSU’s PTOs, let alone talk about the work they have done and the positive changes they have brought to campus. A friend of mine was not even aware there were roles like Working Class & Social Mobility Officer, when such a role would have been of interest to them during the two years they have studied at York. These may be examples of my own anecdotal evidence, but when only 15% of students felt motivated enough to take the time to vote in last year’s elections, it’s not hard to imagine that the average student is not aware of what PTOs do to help them.
The issue of student engagement and awareness of what a student union can offer, especially with PTO roles, is not unique to this election cycle or York. However, a particularly revealing moment was the day the 2022 Election candidates were announced: special individual announcements were used for each of the Sabbatical Officer roles, but zero posts announced any of the PTO candidates, just a mention on the end of the President candidate posts saying PTO candidates could be found inside the election supplement of Nouse.
Naturally, Sabbs have a larger role and the student interest will be more on them, but to not have a single post on any social media channel showcasing any of the PTOs is borderline insulting to the candidates who put so much time into campaigns that heavily rely on online visibility.
This treatment of PTO candidates is emblematic of a wider issue of YUSU not giving PTOs a loud enough voice to help students. I understand the desire of not wanting to spam students with a constant string of emails, but would one weekly email from the collective PTOs really be the digital straw that breaks the camel’s back for students already getting emails from at minimum Sabbs, colleges, Charlie Jeffrey and Wayne Campbell? At least give students the chance to hear from them, and if those who still do not care decide to unsubscribe then that’s their choice. Right now many students never hear from PTOs at all unless they have joined the related network, and again these networks are not publicised enough by YUSU, essentially being branded as societies rather than the main way to push for change.
A students’ union that does not give the student officers a far-reaching voice, especially a PTO without the time and resources of a full-time Sabbs, ultimately refuses to give them enough power to generate meaningful change. When many of these roles are for groups who have to fight to have their voices heard in society generally, this lack of Students’ Union support makes the PTO positions seem more like a token gesture to appear inclusive rather than positions actually in place to ensure YUSU works for everyone.
Around campus, there are floor signs asking “Last year 15% of you voted in the YUSU Elections, what do the rest of you want?”, with the kind of desperation you expect to see at 3am in Salvos rather than from a students’ union. Perhaps there would be more student engagement if students were actually able to see throughout the year how all of these roles impact their student life.
PTOs play a vitally important role, it’s time we gave them the attention they deserve.