The Students’ Union today launched ‘The Big Ask’, the first SU referenda to take place in nine years. Four questions are being proposed to students, with voting open on the portal from now until 5pm on the 14th of February. On Monday, the ‘Big Debate’ saw the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns for each of the four questions propose their alternating positions. Emily Tripp reports.
1. Should the Students’ Union adopt the new proposal for the Executive structure?
Proposed change: Four of the current Executive Officer positions will be removed – Finance and Services, Equal Opportunities & Welfare, Environment & Social Justice and Accommodation & Community. The roles of the remaining five will be redefined as – President, Education, Activities, Athletic Union, and Welfare & Community.
Yes (Rosie Tressler)
Rosie’s opening speech centred upon the notion that the proposed executive structure would increase efficiency, creating a “tighter and more dynamic team”. The Executive Operation Audit conducted last year highlighted key failings of the current structure, although Rosie was quick to clarify that these failings were operational and not financial. This “large and unwieldy” system is a barrier to further representational opportunities of officers. Rosie argued that officers could better fulfil their roles if dedicated staff carried out their operational duties.
No (Fran Cowling)
The objection raised by Fran was directed at the merging of the roles of Equal Opportunities & Welfare Officer with the Accommodations & Communities Officer. Students face an “uncertain future” as a result of national issues, such as the tuition fee increase, as well as local problems such as in recent problematic relations with the council. Fran argued that this is therefore no time to be reducing student representatives. Without dedicated officers for minorities, key members of the student community will be voiceless. Fran stated that “there is so much more to equal opportunities” than those issues covered by the representative officers, and safeguarding the problems of the minorities will not happen if the number of officers is reduced.
Questions mainly focused on how far reducing the size of the executive would undermine its ability as a representative body. Rosie maintained that it was indeed the “best way for these roles to go”, speaking from her experience as Equal Opportunities officer for the past six months. Rather than having officers devoted to certain issues, Rosie advocated embedding this role within the duties of all officers. This led to further questions on the motivations behind candidates standing for election, with candidates driven to the role out of experience, such as in housing, having to dilute their interest in order to focus on other issues, such as LGBT representation, and as a consequence be less inclined to take part. Although Rosie argued that with training officers could learn to be interested and involved in a wide range of issues, Fran insisted that training did not compensate for passion, “if they’ve never experienced it or had a drive to change then you’re going to struggle to get those people involved”.
2. Should the Students Union adopt the proposed decision making structure?
Proposed change: A student’s idea for change would be submitted online, and then filtered into one of the following three ‘ePoll’ zones: Student Development, Education, and Wellbeing and Citizenship. If a decision is not ‘populist’ but nevertheless important, it can be brought to the Assembly by an Officer as an emergency motion. Alternatively an idea could be brought in by petition for referendum. The Union Assembly would then debate the relevant issues that have been brought to the floor, and can go through to referenda.
Yes (Alex ‘Corky’ Corck-Adelman)
Corky’s opening statement was an attack on the “clique”, the “process” and the “domination of a small exclusive” group that governs the decision making structure. This perpetuation of a “lack of engagement” damages the ability for the union to fulfil its function to the best of its ability. He called for engaged representatives that want to be there, for more issues to be brought to referenda and for relevant issues to be brought to the assembly. The ePoll system, he argued, would weed out irrelevant issues brought to assembly.
No (Elizabeth ‘Egg’ Goddard)
Egg questioned the degree to which assembly members could be held accountable for their decision-making. The current system, although Egg admits is in need of reform, has a lobbying procedure whereby members act on behalf of certain interests. This is not the case under the proposed structure, and as a result “members can act however they like and not in the interest of any group of students, unaccountable to anyone”. The danger of “extremist views” by members voted in on an “elect me because I’m nice” campaign, pose a serious threat to the running of the union, Egg claimed. With the ePoll system unprecedented in any university, Egg doubted its efficiency. Instead, she proposed placing more emphasis on school reps, given students are said to place academic interests as one of their highest priorities.
The main issues brought up in response to this proposal related to accountability and engagement. Corky’s arguments for the need of urgent reform were challenged by Egg, who instead offered the explanation that the notion of a “broken council” was a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, and problems could be remedied without such full-scale reform, such as in regard to engagement of school reps. The threat of “extremist” views was queried in response to Egg’s opening statement. This was clarified as a demand for a platform upon which students could speak, so that the views of individuals would not take precedent over group interests.
3. Should the Students’ Union enable students to be members of the Board of Trustees?
Proposed change: Student trustees would be added to the Board of Trustees, the body that oversees decision-making in the SU. Currently, the Board consists of four Exec Officers and four external Trustees. If the referendum passes, the four Student Trustees will be appointed by a panel and then approved by Union Assembly.
Yes (Sam le Pard)
The main reason behind introduction of student trustees lies in a desire to increase the democratic value of the union, which Simon argued could be done if there is greater involvement of students themselves in the union. The inclusion of student trustees would not only “fill the void in representation” that is caused by external trustees, but would also increase the diversity and student involvement in the union. In order for the union to be “fit for purpose” and be brought in line with all other Russell Group universities, Simon argues that it is both “appropriate and right to allow students to lead this student led organisation”.
No (Reuben Kirkham)
Reuben disputed both the principle and the technicalities of introducing student trustees to the executive structure. Student trustees would not only be “accountable to no-one but themselves”, but also would be “vulnerable” to coercion and victimisation, a problem Reuben claimed to have seen from past experience in universities that have adopted this system. Moreover, Reuben questioned how this system could work and upon what basis it had been formulated. He argued that expansion of the number of executives on the board would provide a better alternative than student trustees.
Responses to questions were largely based on competing evidence as to how far student trustees have proven to be effective. The extent of these differing experiences proved problematic in reaching a conclusion as to how reliable an introduction of student trustees to the executive board would be. Reuben debated the rationale behind the “leap” from the student survey to the layout of the proposed structure, especially highlighted in response to questions raised as to his distrust of students, rather than executives, sitting on the board. The questions demonstrated that the positions were broadly split between a belief in the effectiveness of the current system, and the potential effectiveness of the new system. The potential for progressive change for Reuben was not relevant; it is an ‘either or’ when it comes to the running of the union. By contrast, Simon admitted that though the current system was working, an effective institution was not absolute and the changes made could indeed be progressive.
4. Should the Students’ Union enable the possibility of serving sabbatical officers to run for a second term?
Proposed change: Sabbatical officers are the full time officers of the Students’ Union, and currently cannot serve consecutive terms, although they can stand again after two years. The proposed system would allow the sabbatical officer to stand immediately after a term in office. If the sabbatical officer were to choose to run for re-election, this would have to be declared before nominations open in the elections.
Yes (Simon Murphy)
Simon made clear in his opening speech that the main advantage of introducing the potential for a second term is continuity. With many officers leaving “unfinished business”, the prospect of a second term would allow for “consistent positive steps” for the Students’ Union, and not leave officers feeling “frustrated” at the end of their term. Moreover, Simon noted that this was not a novel idea, with most Russell Group universities providing opportunity for incumbents to seek re-election.
No (Stuart Neyton)
Stewart raised three main concerns with the proposed structure, centred upon a fear that the system would have a “seriously detrimental impact on the fairness of executive elections”. Firstly, Stewart said that he foresaw the first term of a sabbatical officer turning into a “re-election campaign”, preventing officers from carrying out their representational functions. This led to his second objection to the proposal, which was a worry that incumbents would have an advantage come election time. He argued that “fewer people would run against an incumbent”. Stewart also addressed the issue of continuity, by offering an alternative whereby there is investment in better training and staff support. Ultimately, Stewart argued that sabbatical officers in their second term will be a further year away from their student experience, and in so being will appear as a “staff member” and not a representational officer of a part of the student body.
The questions centred upon the degree to which the “incumbency advantage” affects fairness of elections. The discussion raised the issue of whether or not the incumbents could be approached by potential opponents seeking advice in their election campaigns and information on the position. Simon’s response to this potential conflict of interest was an insistence that all elected officers would respect their position. The threat of strong incumbent candidates as a deterrent to potential opponents was challenged in discussion, an instead the alternative offered that it would encourage a higher quality of candidate. This point was further taken by those who also challenged the notion of a first term used by officers as a platform for re-election. Instead, it was argued, candidates standing for a second term would be those more dedicated and focussed on the role.