My frustration with the hack culture here within the Oxford bubble has reached new heights in recent weeks. A hack is someone who gets involved in either student politics and student journalism with the primary aim of personal advancement; while they may have subsidiary interest in whatever it is the organisation they have joined does, they are generally willing to sacrifice effort they could put into the organisation if it serves their purposes. For example, they might join their JCR’s committee as a stepping-stone to greater power, neglecting the rest of their duties in that post just as soon as it has got them a ‘better’ job somewhere else. The greatest frustration is how to tell hacks from non-hacks when figuring out who to put effort into, who to rally behind and who to speak well of. It’s made harder by some hacks becoming alright when they get to the ‘pinnacle’ of their ‘career’ in Oxford; they might then start caring about things that matter once they’re comfortable. But figuring out when this has happened isn’t easy.

The thing that I’ve only really realised recently is just how much the main hack-infested organisations in Oxford link up with each other. Perhaps the biggest are the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC), the Oxford University Students Union (OUSU) and the Oxford Union (the Union), a debating society. My thought in the past was that they were fairly independent. There were the Labour hacks and the OUSU hacks and the Union hacks, with JCRs being trodden on by all three groups in their quests for advancement, but now I’ve realised that people tend to bounce back and forth between the three, sort of jumping up between three or four ladders. The only independents seem to be the journo-hacks who write the (abysmal) student press and don’t seem to get involved in the politics they write about directly, but this could be another illusion on my part. As I say, I’ve realised major links between the three lately. I always knew that OUSU has at least three sabs each year who got there because OULC masterminded their election campaign, but what I didn’t realise was that OUSU is basically under OULC’s control as it has many many elected positions, and the majority are filled with OULC folk. JCRs mean that we have a very weak students’ union in Oxford, with a very low election turnout, and this is capitalised on by the likes of OULC. Okay, I thought, so OUSU and OULC are tied up, but hopefully the rather less progressive Union is a separate entity; hopefully the OULC hacks have at least some standards and don’t throw their lot in over there. Some hope. At an OUSU campaign meeting this week where the best of OUSU’s campaigners met (and they really are quite good at fighting the university and its colleges), the chatter before the meeting began, from those there who I most respect, was concerned with whether or not each of them had voted in the Union elections happening that day.

This is not to say that there are not good people involved in these organisations too. My JCR job this year is to liaise with OUSU and form a link in the JCR-OUSU-NUS chain, and there are others like me who sit there getting frustrated and just try to improve things in our own little domains, with no thought of advancement. But we end up falling victim to hacks who try to muscle in on projects; we end up disenchanted with it all. At the start of this term I was very enthusiastic about OUSU and wanted to promote it within Balliol and work hard to counter its extremely low reputation there, but my impetus has all but disappeared as I’ve realised just how many of the people involved are there for the wrong reasons.

Time for two examples to attempt to illustrate my realisations. The first is a hack we’ll call X who I met at the meeting for JCR OUSU reps, so, all the people from across Oxford with my current job. He had a lot to say and a lot of it didn’t seem too relevant to me but there was nothing to complain about, even though my antihack-senses were tingling slightly. Then a few weeks later he stood for a minor position at OUSU that no-one had stood for in the real elections. Here come the divided loyalties which evidence his concern with personal advancement: I’m pretty sure that the position entitles him to a vote at OUSU Council, the place where JCR reps like me and the OUSU officers get together to make decisions. But you can’t have more than one vote. So his JCR’s vote (I have one of Balliol’s three votes) and his OUSU exec vote now clash and he can only use one, so he can’t do both jobs properly. A friend of mine in a similar situation resigned her JCR job as soon as she got elected to her OUSU one, in order that her college could continue to be represented properly. But, assuming I am right that the position X ran for does give him a vote, X clearly doesn’t care about either of the positions all that much and is keeping both to milk them for all they’re worth. The icing on the cake was when he came and sat down again after the hustings, and flipped open his laptop (obviously it was an Apple laptop; they often outnumber other makes in Oxford), and opened up the OULC website and looked at its committee page. There was his face smiling back, with a reasonably important-looking position. No wonder he won. The room was full of OULC people ready to vote him in.

But there’s more. As I mentioned earlier, it’s been Union elections this week and mysteriously my copy of the manifestos which I got pidged, and my neighbour’s, appeared on our kitchen table with no intervention from either of us… very odd. Flipping it open, guess who’s face stared back, standing for the Union’s governing body? That’s right. Then yesterday I learnt from someone else that X is also standing for OULC’s top position, co-chair, for next term. He can’t possibly do all this stuff at once without doing some of the jobs rather poorly, and it’s very disappointing to see that attitude.

I have another example of a Balliol friend, Y, who I watched pace around the front quad from the library window for most of yesterday as I battled through a challenging article on the problem of induction. He sat on the bench and messed with his laptop, and occasionally he would spot people he knows as members of the Union to go and ‘hack’ them to vote for him in the elections. That’s basically what they come down to. How good you are at getting mass numbers of people to go and vote for you. Y attempted to hack me multiple times and while I like him, I decided to stick to my principle of never voting in elections that are such a farce, and when I’m only voting for the candidate who asked me because I happen to know them. It’s all so very pathetic and such a waste of people’s time.

So why do hacks hack? It’s definitely a pre-medidated thing because they seem to arrive at Oxford and get right to it. If I wanted a hack career I wouldn’t stand a chance, because I’ve been here for a year and a half already; you have to get going right from the word go. Some of them genuinely enjoy debasing themselves in this way; Y definitely does and tells me so. And perhaps some of them excuse their desire for power and prestige with the thought that they can achieve some positive change by getting these positions; as I say, some hacks cease to hack once they reach the top of whatever ladder they are building for themselves and start to do good stuff. But the main reason is probably that they want to be politicians and (in the case of journo-hacks) journalists, and since they’re in Oxford, that’s what’ll happen. The coalition cabinet has more ex-presidents of the Union than women; people I know involved in student journalism are going to walk out of their degrees straight into the offices of national newspapers, for which they already write for. Some of them are very competent and this is good. But when you look at the overall state of these student organisations and realise the extent to which they feed the ruling classes and the press of this country one worries very much for the future.

The reason it upsets me is that I have a positive view of student politics in general and what is can achieve. I pour myself into my JCR to help it achieve things, and I enjoy giving something back to my immediate community. I’ve written before about how valuable I think JCR-style organisation of people to do stuff can be. But anything above that level ends up dominated by people out for themselves and that leads to projects being short-term and under-achieving.

One final note about the Union in specificity. There is the hacking side but there is also the technical debating side, which is autonomous and meritocratic. I wish I’d realised that these things were seperate and got involved when I came to Oxford because I used to enjoy debating and I think it’s a good way of improving how you think. And as I say it’s separate from the front-of-house of the Union: in order to advance you have to win stuff, and that’s that. The rules are carefully set up for a meritocracy. But I wasn’t brave enough to fight through the hacks to reach this and I regret that.



You are wrong, put simply, for many reasons, but I will simply touch upon the most obvious.

’ If I wanted a hack career I wouldn’t stand a chance, because I’ve been here for a year and a half already; you have to get going right from the word go.’

When I ran for OULC Campaigns Officer, my degree was further advanced than yours is now. Less than a term later, I had been elected Chair. How? Not, as you suggest, because I had decided before arriving to hack, but because I had a positive forward manifesto for the Club. That included such achievements as allowing transexuals to join Women’s Caucus and getting rid of much of the overbearing bureaucracy. It’s just an unprovoked attack upon people you’ve never met to claim that they are simply careerist hacks.

(It’s also worth remembering that while you were sneering at OULC, they were ensuring a Labour MP was elected in Oxford East)

Then let’s take student journalists. If people at the Oxford Student wanted to advance their own careers, then they wouldn’t investigate the Union officials and the OUSU hacks who misuse their power. And yet they do.

One of the greatest sins in public discourse is cynicism. While I have engaged opponents I have believed to be wrong, I can think of only one I have thought to be morally bankrupt. It’s just too pat to claim that hacks only seek personal preferement.
This imported comment should say posted 23:45 on 9th March 2011.

Comment by stephenkbush Wed 09 Mar 2011 23:45:00 UTC