After the motion to disaffiliate had been passed at a General Meeting, a statement was released, saying that ‘we could no longer remain within an institution whose democratic failings we feel increasingly threaten to undermine its positive work’. The statement raised several specific issues, including the way in which ‘one of Labour Students’ worst kept secrets is the prominent role of the outgoing Exec in choosing and encouraging a chosen group of candidates to run for positions, with little to no attention focused on encouraging others to enter the race’, as well as the ‘undemocratic culture’ of having a Constitution which is not available online or at the request of members.
OULC continued, ‘We remain committed to fighting for the values that brought us into Labour Students in Oxford and elsewhere, but these wouldn’t be in keeping with our continued presence in an organisation whose democratic deficit increasingly stifles efforts at meaningful reform and improvement.’
But just under twelve months later, it appears that little has improved. In a recent blog post by Jon Chambers, Chair of Hull University Labour Club, Labour Students is criticised again for its democratic failings. Chambers explains how – with one month to go – a venue is yet to be announced for the Conference at which the Chair, Secretary and Campaigns and Membership Officer – the three paid officers of the organisations – are elected. This, he says, means that ‘Labour Clubs will have to spend over the odds to get there – or worse, won’t go at all’. He goes on to criticise the lack of information that is available to members regarding the elections and poor communication from Labour Students. He also states that ‘uncontested elections every year are no coincidence.’
Those who have spoken out have themselves been attacked. The day after OULC made their decision to disaffiliate, Wes Streeting – a former NUS President – tweeted about his hopes that ‘no Labour MPs will now speak at the club’. Mr Chambers also came under fire, via Twitter, from the Treasurer of Swansea Labour Students, John Bayliss. Bayliss tweeted ‘@jonwillchambers For bringing Labour Students into disrepute through unsubstantiated accusations you should resign as chair! #ShameOnYo’.
Others, however, were more supportive of Chambers’ blog. In an exclusive interview, Kevin Feeney (Co-Chair elect of OULC), yesterday said that ‘Jon makes some good points which echo much of what caused OULC to disaffiliate initially. Clearly there are still issues with Labour Students, and the more widely these are recognised and accepted, the more likely it is that they can be properly addressed’. He went on to say that ‘there needs to be a recognition of past failings on both parts (from Labour Students and Labour Clubs), and then Labour Students should take real, concrete action to rectify the democratic deficit at their heart.’
After reading this, many may begin to ask themselves why. ‘Why should I care about this? I’m not even a member of the Labour Party.’ However, Labour Students’ strong links to the National Union of Students mean the democratic failings spelled out above should concern us all.
The Chair of Labour Students holds a lot of sway within the NUS. Indeed, the job description states that ‘the Chair…works most closely with the NUS Group, holding meetings ahead of NEC meetings and assisting with matters related to HE Funding and other student relevant issues.’
This influence – from a person appointed by questionable means – is serious enough, but the Chair of Labour Students also has a role in selecting those that run the NUS. A significant number of NUS officers are themselves members of the Labour Party, and many of these seek to be official Labour Students’ candidates. The Chair of Labour Students is highly influential in this, as they are part of the three-person team that recommends potential Labour Students’ candidates. As recommendation almost certainly leads to being an official candidate, and being a Labour Students’ candidate leads almost certainly to election, the Chair of Labour Students has a significant role in choosing many of our national student representatives.
So it should concern us all that democracy within Labour Students has been found wanting; more so that, after the publicised disaffiliation of OULC, little seems to have improved. With the influence of those in the highest offices of the organisation so fareaching within the student movement as a whole, we should all be encouraging those we know within Labour to make a stand. The democratic changes needed in Labour Students have been long overdue.
So, it’s October now. The Freshers’ Week (or Fortnight, you lucky, heavy-drinking lot) fug has risen, even the worst hangovers have succumbed to orange juice and Ibuprofen, and the reason you have someone saved in your phone as “Tall Brown-Eyed Boy” has become a mystery that will never be solved.
(Unless you only move to uni in October, of course, in which case here’s a free tip for you – make sure you save people’s numbers with their actual names. Seriously).
Anyway, now you’ve realised that you don’t really want to be a member of those twelve societies you joined because they were giving out free pens/USB drives/pizza at the Freshers’ Fair, one of the things you might be thinking about – alongside how many highlighters you need and the best way to get red-wine stains out of a cream carpet – is how to get involved with the people who make it all happen: the student union.
“Student politics” is a mystifying topic for a lot of us. I count myself amongst that number; I’m in my fourth year at the University of Edinburgh, and up until I sat down and wrote ‘So, it’s October now’ at the top of this page, I hadn’t ever really thought about how to get involved.
That’s a mistake, honestly. Edinburgh’s student union, just like most others, is a wonderful, vibrant place. Political students usually come in two clear-cut stereotypes: the left-wing hippie, complete with dreadlocks, clothes that haven’t seen a washing machine since the seventies, and a permanent fug of patchouli and weed, goes up against the right-wing would-be Thatcherite, all sharp suits and impressive CV.
The problem is, of course, this isn’t true: in fact it’s a stereotype straight out of ‘The Young Ones’. In reality, your student union offers much more than just a collection of outdated archetypes – whether you simply want to take advantage of their cheap pints and free advice services, or actually help out in making the decisions that keep it going.
Each student union is unique, of course, but most have some things in common. They offer academic support, as well as advice on general issues. They have the ultimate say over what goes on in societies, voting on financial matters as well as, in rare cases, having the power to sanction them. They run campaigns, both individually and alongside the National Union of Students – the protests in London, for example, were organised by student unions.
It’s easy to think that the student union just sits around all day talking about how to stick it to the man. Indeed, Edinburgh University’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Mike Williamson, says that before he got involved in student politics, he “used to think that the students’ association was a big talking shop that never got anything done” – mind you, he adds, “my mind was changed when, in 2009, the University tried to close the Portuguese department, which was part of my joint degree, and EUSA really stepped up to the plate and ran a hugely successful campaign to keep it open.”
Because, of course, it isn’t true that your union does nothing. Both in front of and behind the scenes, it works very hard to keep you in the lazy student lifestyle to which you’ll no doubt become accustomed (another free tip – Neighbours starts at half one, and is best enjoyed from the comfort of your bed).
Of course, even I understood that there’s more to the student union than a yearly election campaign and a number of posters technically known as a “shit-ton”. Where I came unstuck, though, and I don’t think I’m the only one, is in trying to figure out how it all works. There are so many different strands to the union, and in most cases they don’t all fall into a neat pattern! Still, in most cases, it goes something like this:
- The sabbatical team. A sabbatical student (i.e. someone who has taken a year off, usually after graduation, to focus on student politics.) This team is usually led by a President – this person presides over the rest of the union. A new president is elected yearly, and all sabbatical officers pledge certain things to the student population (more on this later).
- The executive committee. The president is also technically a part of this committee, alongside several vice presidents who focus on different aspects of student life. The exact titles of the vice presidents differ from university to university, but you’ll generally find someone in charge of academic affairs, communications, societies and activities, campaigns, etc. Again, these are all sabbs who run for election each year.
- The student body! Membership of your student union is generally considered an automatic part of being enrolled at the university, and there are loads of ways to get involved – from as soon as you start right up until you leave.
It depends what you want to do! If you’re interested in the academic side of things – you want to help make sure that your courses are properly reflective of your needs, for example – you can become a Course Rep. This is a position which your lecturers ought to mention in the first couple of weeks; each course needs one. The course reps meet towards the beginning of the semester, and can decide to nominate themselves to become year reps, department reps, and faculty reps (some of these may be dependent on individual unions’ policies). This means that if you fancy giving this sort of thing a go, but aren’t quite sure how far you want to take it, you can choose to stop nominating yourself at any point, which makes it a good way to test the water.
If, on the other hand, you’re more interested in getting your voice heard in terms of campaigning, most universities run forums every few weeks during semester time. These are open meetings which allow any student to share their ideas on a given topic. Forums tend to be split into different areas – for example academic affairs, societies, postgraduate issues – so make sure you go along to the right one; your university union’s website ought to be able to provide you with some more information.
Also, if the student union decide to hold a protest/campaign at any point during the year, there will undoubtedly be information in your student newspaper or on the website, so make sure you keep checking! You don’t have to be informed on every decision the union makes to get involved with one campaign. Zahid Raja, NUS Wales national executive committee, says that ‘the best place to get up to date information on what your SU does is from social media – you have to remember that these officers are students and 8/10 times, they will update facebook or twitter before they update the Student Union website. Also, be on the lookout for their blogs if you want the real gossip behind SU decisions.’
What if you’re more of a society person? James Hickie, Activities Officer of USSU, the University of Sussex’s student union, says that he first got involved with USSU through playing for the student orchestra. Even societies that aren’t overtly political have to go through the union for many things, and it’s very easy to be involved in both.
Finally, every union has an AGM, to which the whole student body is invited. Depressingly, not all of these meetings achieve quorum, meaning that the one opportunity everyone has to vote directly on motions that will affect you can be somewhat wasted – basically a polling exercise. By going along you’ll not only be adding your voice to the pool, you might be making the difference between a motion being passed or not.
If, like me, you’re jaded and bitter and feel cynical every Freshers’ Week when you see excited freshers queuing up in Tesco, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s too late to get involved in the student union, even if this breathless whistle-stop tour has suggested that it might be something you’re interested in. Or perhaps you are an excited fresher, but you want to spend your first year getting horribly drunk and inventing new cocktails (and I speak as the proud creator of the ‘Manhandler’) without any sort of responsibility to worry your pretty head.
If this is sounding about right, then never fear: you can get involved with your union at any point during your degree! Edinburgh’s Mike Williamson is a perfect example: he studied for two years at Edinburgh and did a year in Portugal without ever standing for election for a union position. “I got involved in the anti-cuts group, which decided to run a big slate for the EUSA elections. Being in my final year I could only run for a sabbatical position so, after some persuading, that’s what I did! It’s quite strange, particularly because I don’t know all the processes and what’s happened in the past, but I used to do quite a lot of campaigning anyway, so getting paid to do that is my idea of a dream job,” he says.
So, hopefully, this article’s done its job, and whether or not you decide to put yourself forward to be an active part of the student union you will at least have a better understanding of what’s going on. It simply remains for me to wish you luck, should you decide to nominate yourself to be a course rep, go along to a forum or even stand in an election. In the words of James Hickie: “Over the course of my degree I set up and ran societies, helped out coaching sports teams, attended and organised events, volunteered during Freshers Week, met many of my closest friends and had some of my most memorable University experiences, all through the Students’ Union.” If that’s not a selling point, I don’t know what is.
Last month, Birmingham hosted the Liberal Democrats’ annual Autumn Conference where a number of things happened including Nick Clegg announcing new Government policy on International Aid, Lynne Featherstone said that the Government would now hold open talks about legalising marriage for gay people and Sarah Teather made some very bad jokes.
Lib Dems across the country have had a hard time of late. A lot of grassroots members are still unsure about the Coalition and May’s devastating local elections results left a lot of people feeling deflated. Conference was the perfect chance for the Party President, Tim Farron, to boost morale. In his speech he said he was elected to provide a voice for Lib Dems outside of Government. That he was there to say what Ministers couldn’t. That he was there not to be an apologist for the Coalition, but to shout out Lib Dem successes in the Coalition. This was met by one of many standing ovations doled out to various high-flyers in the party.
More than previously, the Lib Dems have been very vociferous in in showing they and the Tories are two very different parties. Clegg, Farron, Featherstone and a host of other MPs made very sure that members knew this wasn’t an electoral pact. That despite what Labour and other Coalition critics say, two beds definitely are better than one.
For the Lib Dems, Conference is a chance for delegates to decide party policy – which could, for the next four years, become Government policy too. This year proved to be a landmark year with ground-breaking motions being overwhelmingly voted in. One was the “Science, Not Stigma” motion, brought forward by Chris Ward. This was against the ban, and then 12 month deferral, on gay men donating blood. Another was the legalisation and regulation of all drugs, based on the Portuguese model
Conference is also a place for fun though. After a long day of debating, amending and voting, it’s time for the ties to be loosened and the hair to come down. As soon as the lanyards are off, the party animals emerge. It’s an opportunity for the young and the old to mingle, have a drink and maybe even hit a foam party. Work hard and play harder. In fact, my favourite line of the conference was hearing Tim Farron MP complaining about the price of a drink at the hotel bar: “Danny Alexander had to scrap Trident to pay for two pints!” This is the Liberal Democrats many young people know and love.
Across the country, Student Union officers, sabbatical teams and youth representatives of a thousand organisations are working hard to engage ‘everyday students’ – a dynamic group of people whose passions lie outside of political change making.
However and all too often, young people (particularly students) who want to make a change are disempowered. For example, the term ‘student politics’ is thrown around when young people try to engage politics through their own means. Connotations about how ineffective and futile it is to make positive or significant changes envelop this ‘student politics’ and it leads to a judgement ridden perception that anyone involved with Student Unions, Student groups or ‘youth politics’ is simply wasting their time.
Politicians, community leaders and ‘every-day working people’ (possibly the same group of people in the Daily Mail’s ‘silent majority’) harp on about how young people today have become disenfranchised. They talk about how more needs to be done to engage young people. Our alleged apathy is even sometimes linked to the rise in youth unemployment and violence. They often conclude with some statistic on gang culture and how only national service can save the children. SU hacks reading this will have viciously tweeted away about this on #bbcqt , gritted our teeth reading the comments from dodgy facebook acquaintances and carried on the next Morning.
In the world of Student Unions, you hear phrases like ‘how do we mobilise more students’ and ‘Widening participation outreach’ – ridiculous phrases that show us that we’re looking at the symptoms, whilst ignoring the causes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to engage more people and win them over to whatever we’re campaigning on. However, when we run campaigns, hold debates to try to start discourse – do we seriously mainstream the issues or procedures on engaging the debate so they’re accessible to peers who don’t care for ‘standing orders’? Do we even understand how to?
On the national scene, the National Union of Students (NUS) is at an interesting place – a debate at National Conference (the top decision making body for the organisation) on One Member One Vote (OMOV) has led to a working group rendering possible solutions in delivering that. Its terms of reference are unclear and the debate here is marred with factional politics and bad blood between groups that mean little outside of the cliques and clichés.
One of the biggest arguments for OMOV is that it would end factional politics and free up elections – I don’t know about you, but has anyone seen the state of our national politics? Political parties are increasingly viewed as a necessary evil rather than positive change makers. The bigger factions would win out, people with money would get the shiniest leaflets, and everyday student issues would drown in the macro-manoeuvring for the top jobs – much like today but on a ridiculous scale; just think of the #egoparty at the end of those elections? Most of us just shuddered, some of you got excited.
The argument that more people would feel engaged is also a red herring – yes, the campaigns would become enormous, there would be more stunts and more students would know the name of our national president; but would more students actually engage through active participation? I doubt it. Currently, NUS National Conference Delegates across the UK are meant to be elected from cross-campus ballots. Ask yourself, how seriously does your Students Union take those elections? How many people outside of your SU bubble run for those places and what are their chances? If it’s anything like my SU, a tiny tear probably left your eye. Factions may be able to focus attention on a handful of national candidates, but they can’t control well-contested local delegate elections.
A few years ago, when I got involved with the National Union of Students, I read an interesting report about the changing landscape of the student world. The trends spoke volumes about the fast paced nature of students and how we’ve organically adapted to the recession through our behaviour. I don’t think we should be looking to the NUS for some grand answer from the all mighty democratic procedures committee. Instead, we should look to our campuses and identify what we’re doing to make the elections of these national representatives bigger and bolder. Figure out how local issues correlate with the motions going to national conference.
The tools are here to do that…sort of – NUS have a guide near the front of the motions document on how Student Unions should engage that process with debating amendments at student councils. How many of us actually go through this process and how many of our election timetables allow for delegates to go through this process are issues I think that stop most of us going through this.
I suppose what I’m saying here is that OMOV looks very appealing because we all think it’ll be the quick-fix solution that would bring the national issues home to our campuses. But before we reach for the defibrillator that might have devastating consequences, would it not be healthier to make local changes to the way we elect and treat our delegates for national conference?
A member of the NUS’s National Executive Committee, the most senior policy making body in the organisation outside of National Conference, has been stripped of his position after a Disciplinary Panel was convened to consider a breach of the NUS Code of Conduct.
Joshua McKenzie was elected to represent part time students at the Mature and Part Time Students Conference in May of this year. Soon after a complaint was raised regarding the veracity of his nomination. This was then referred to the NUS Code of Conduct for investigation.
On the 5th of August, a Disciplinary Panel was formed to consider a contravention of section 9.6 of the Code, which details a breach of discipline to be “acting with dishonesty or intent to defraud”. The Panel upheld the assertion that “Joshua knowingly registered himself at NUS events as a student at Harrow College, when he was not in fact a member of that educational institution”. The Panel believed that he “acted fraudulently in an attempt to gain office on the National Executive Council” and that this action was “very severe and at odds with the values of NUS”.
The Panel, which comprises an NUS Trustee, a student union officer and a student union staff member, levied several sanctions against Mr McKenzie, including the termination of his positions on all committees within NUS and disqualification from standing in NUS elections until July 1st 2011. The decision of the Disciplinary Panel has since been upheld at an appeal.
Discussions are now taking place between the Chief Returning Officer of NUS, and the Mature and Part Time Students Committee to find an appropriate way to fill the vacancy on the National Executive Committee.
For me and many at this University the work of the National Union of Students is extremely important. They fight sexual violence against women, challenge all forms of discrimination and provide guidance and training for Student Union Officers on how best to support our needs in education.
Looking back just over the past few months; the Fund our Future demonstration at Westminster saw NUS take 50,000 students to protest against funding cuts and higher fees. Swansea University Students marched on London too with local cuts in mind, however you have to ask whether anybody would have listened if we were on our own?
It is easy for both the government and the University management to ignore our concerns and the issues that we feel are important. They’ve done it at Universities where they’re not affiliated to NUS looking at Southampton University, their Students Union has been ignored on all of these in the past: course cuts, halls wardens or deals with arms companies – such as BAE – but add the 7 million voices of NUS members and the vast resources and training NUS brings to Swansea we see a completely different result like over the MFL cuts where the University backed down.
Our Students Union passed a motion on campaigning to end the Universities investments in unethical companies that trade arms – this failed at Southampton who were simply ignored by the University, yet other NUS backed Unions such as UCL and the University of Manchester have succeeded in similar bids. With the help of NUS, lets add Swansea to that list!
In my personal case and for my role on the executive, the NUS has provided critical training and support that’s allowed me to look out for students who would otherwise would have dropped out, as a student supporting other students – I’d like to see all candidates support the work of the NUS and our continued affiliation to the organisation.
I am therefore asking candidates to sign up to this simple pledge:
“I support Swansea University Students’ Union’s affiliation to the National Union of Students.”
The following candidates support this pledge:
Mitchel Theaker – SIGNED
Becca Taylor – approached and responded: WON’T SIGN
Environment and Ethics
Rob Abrams - SIGNED
Aiden Ramsey – SIGNED
Callum Cameron – SIGNED
Ceri Parker- SIGNED
LGBT Womens Place
Sarah Edlund – SIGNED
LGBT Open Place
Ian Morgan – SIGNED
Black Students’ Officer
Rohat Jumani – SIGNED
Students With Disabilities:
Katie Burke – SIGNED
Izzy Granville – SIGNED
John Bayliss – SIGNED
Community and Housing
Pearleen Sangha – SIGNED
Owain Harries – SIGNED
Jordon Owen – SIGNED
Gahtan Algahtani – approached: awaiting response.
Part Time Students:
Martyn Shrewsbury – approached: awaiting response.
Fifteen people ran for six positions, in no particular order, here are your new Amnesty UK STAN committee with their regional responsibilities.
Bolton Council Motion Tuition Fees
This Council recognises that higher education remains a key contributor to the cultural, social and economic life of the UK and that the future success of the country, in an increasingly globalised world, is dependent on a well educated population.
In view of this, this Council is deeply concerned with the Government’s proposals to transfer most of the cost of higher education from the state to students through the removal of the existing tuition fee cap allowing Universities to charge up to £9000 per year.
This measure, notwithstanding the proposed changes to repayment arrangements, will have a regressive impact: students from low and middle income backgrounds will be less likely to attend university and, where they do attend their choice of university will be based on proximity and cost, rather than best academic fit.
This Council cannot support the Coalition’s proposals which will make higher education in the UK one of the most expensive in the world for its students. It cannot support the aim of transforming UK higher education from a mass system to an elite system based on students generating high levels of personal debt. It cannot support a policy that will damage not only the future prospects of many young people in Bolton but also the future prospects UK PLC.
Council invites the Leaders of the two opposition Parties to join the Leader of the Council to write to the Government opposing the Coalition policy on tuition fees.
Labour voted unanimously FOR the motion. Liberal Democrats ABSTAINED and Conservatives voted AGAINST. The motion PASSED.