With “very little to no advertisement to the fact the referendum is taking place”, could a referendum lead to “awful suggestions” being “unknowingly rubber stamp[ped]”?
Following a protracted constitutional conundrum last year and a subsequent ‘independent’ governance review, the Students’ Union is currently undergoing a constitutional reform that seeks to update its constitution, the set of rules it governs itself with. The idea, supposedly, is to enable the SU to continue to work as a student-led organisation acting in the interests of students at UWE. However, the fact that you didn’t know about this or its relevance to you is a demonstration of the real problem at hand: a lack of engagement with the student body.
The lack of a solution for one of the SU’s most fundamental problems, engagement, isn’t exclusively what makes the constitutional referendum a bad idea, it also contains some awful suggestions that I believe would be a detriment to the Students’ Union.
Welfare Committee removal
For years, staff and students in the Students’ Union and the student-body have been trying to make addressing the student mental health crisis a priority, increasingly justified after revelations of UWE’s stagnating offering.
The Community and Welfare Committee was made up of students keen to get involved in supporting the work of the VP Welfare & Community (VPCW) by suggesting, discussing and examining ideas for how to improve welfare at the University. A forum such as this one acts to enable students like us, those with the most personal experience and stake, to feed into a formal platform. The justification for getting rid of it given so far is that students have failed to engage with the platform. Instead of removing it completely, a humble suggestion may be that trying to engage students in the platform would be more beneficial. However, with the current VPCW, Ubong Joseph Ante, stating at a recent Student Council meeting that they “didn’t have strong feelings” about the removal of the committee, it could be said that perhaps there are more reasons why there has been a failure to sustain a functioning welfare committee.
Removal of the alumni trustee position
The next regrettable change in the constitutional reforms is the removal of the alumni trustee position from the Board of Trustees, currently made up of the five Presidents, a couple of student trustees and up to four external trustees – they are the body that are legally responsible for the decisions of the SU so are the ones who have the ultimate say. Alumni who have been involved in the Students’ Union during their time at University offer great value to this decision making body. As the Presidents and often staff in the SU only serve for a couple of years before moving on, having an alumni trustee with institutional memory of the workings and goings-on of the SU offers insight into prior attempts to change policy and what has or hasn’t been successful. The justification for the removal has included that most of the posts have been vacant for some time, but this is only because the SU haven’t even attempted to recruit for the roles.
There are five full time Presidents that are voted for by all students, paid to represent the best interests of the students to the University and ensure that services the SU offers are relevant, wanted, beneficial and even enjoyable to students.
The Student Council is one of the most important bodies in the Students’ Union. Made up of students from a cross-section of the university (society/sports committee members and academic reps), they ensure the Presidents are delivering on their manifesto commitments and are taken to task over their actions (or often, inaction). The student council also vote on policy ideas that are submitted by students through the online student ideas page as well as any suggested by the full and part time officers of the SU. Changes made as a result of the council include the addition of more water fountains across all UWE campuses, the reduced price of laundry in student accommodation, and more food options on campus, as well as many more. The changes proposed to the system only act to simplify the voting system on the surface, rather than address the main issues with the system: a lack of turnout by council members to meetings and, unsurprisingly, an insufficient number of students logging on to vote on ideas.
Suffice to say every type of student can get involved at one or many of the levels of decision making in the Students’ Union. However, it is due to a lack of engagement that these structures fail to function. Without students engaging in the student idea system, no new student-led policy can be created, without student council reaching the 75% attendance requirement none of those ideas can become policy, and without ideas being official SU policy they won’t be enacted. It goes without saying that most, if not all, of these steps can be bypassed by Presidents with initiative and a decent work-ethic, but those are hard to come by.
There are other changes to the bye-laws that seek to change the way elected officers are handled in disciplinary procedures, many of which damaging, but it would require more time than we have to go into the history of why the changes are being made and what the changes mean in practice.
Finally, the referendum itself has been handled in an at best dubious and at worst fundamentally undemocratic way. Referendums of this nature haven’t been held at UWE for a while but there is precedent for the process that referenda in general should follow, following the vote of no confidence referendum in a previous SU President. Thus far there has been very little to no advertisement to the fact the referendum is taking place, bar one announcement post less than 5 working days before the supposed start date. There has been very little to no advertisement of the fact that students can and should put themselves forward to represent either side of the referendum, a mandatory part of holding such a democratic event. Bath SU, who had a similar referendum last year, created a video to explain the changes and as a result received great support for their reforms.
Most concerning is that this referendum has broken with the norm established by other Students’ Unions by holding the vote alongside the traditional summer election period “The Leadership Race”. This was done no doubt to increase turnout to achieve the required 1000 vote minimum but via the back door, where they don’t need to sufficiently inform students about the referendum – instead hoping that they just unknowingly rubber stamp it. This is on top of the fact that the amended articles of association and byelaws have not been approved by the student council, a step necessary for calling the referendum in the first place.
In the last day, it has been confirmed that over the course of only three outreach sessions meant to inform students of the contents of the reforms, only one student attended. It would therefore be a complete joke to assume that students have been adequately informed and falls far beneath best practice in the sector. Furthermore, no doubt a consequence of the complete lack of engagement on the matter, nobody has put themselves forwards to be the agent of either side of the referendum. Without student-led campaigns, I am unsure how the referendum can continue to go ahead – all precedent suggests that it shouldn’t.
In summary, the biggest change in Students’ Union governance in recent years has ignored the biggest problem it faces, engagement, it has made ill-advised and poorly thought-out changes and ignored proper procedure for holding such a referendum. As someone who has served on the Student Council for the most consecutive terms in its history before becoming a Democratic Procedures Officer at the SU, I have observed, overseen or been involved in nearly every democratic event that have taken place at UWE whilst I have been a student. Whilst there are lots of flaws and extra-procedural quirks that occur in student politics, especially at UWE, most of these are in good faith or as a result of textual vagueness. The culmination of constitutional vandalism in this instance however makes it not only impossible to support but something to actively oppose.
If the referendum does go ahead make sure to VOTE NO to the proposed changes.
Photography by Maya Bond-Webster