Some more reports, and the text of a leaflet from Bangor.
Monday 28th January saw a new chapter in the history of Bangor Student Union.
Iain Dalton (Bangor Socialist Party)
A new constitution was passed which will see the Student Union transformed more in the direction of a commercialised charity rather than a campaigning trade union equivalent for students. This mirrors the changes taking place in NUS at the present time.
The Student Union officials suggested that the new constitution was needed to allow more participation in the student union. Socialist Students in Bangor attempted to mobilise a 'no' vote against the introduction of the new constitution, arguing that the problems within the student union aren't structural but political, it is the lack of mass campaigning action on issues like fees, student debt, course cuts and poor student accomodation that turns students away from engaging with Student Unions.
The consultation period for the new constitution was during students exam periods which as well as reducing the number of students who knew about it also made it difficult to organise a campaign against it because all us Socialist Student members had exams or coursework too.In spite of this we organise a stall and canvassing of some halls of residences. An emergency general meeting was called to pass the motion, where the majority of attendees are from union societies, sports clubs and committees who have to be there or face their accounts been frozen, and despite this the union only just got enough people there for the meeting to go ahead. In addition to their speech in favour of the constitution, the Student Union executive were also allowed to make a twenty minute presentation in favour of the governance review too. In light of these factors, Socialist Students feel delighted that 22 students decided to support our campaign against the constitution (which was three times as many members as we had at the meeting).
Although the new constitution means developing a mass campaign through student union structures is shut off for the present period, we will use our support here to continue to build the campaign to defeat fees which several students have been interested in finding out more about over the last few weeks.
For a Democratic Students Union not 'governance'A Further Statement on the Governance Review
There is currently a crisis of student involvement with Student Unions and NUS. Students Have suffered a period of defeats over the last ten or so years. Attacks on the conditions of students have included the end of grants for students, the introduction of tuition fees and then top-up fees. More students are having to work as well as studying and moves towards universities as businesses closing or cutting courses because they are not seen as ‘profitable’.
We agree with the Student Union that change is needed, but we do not think the Governance Review is the change that is needed. Rather we think it will worsen the situation for various reasons which we shall explain below.
Is it Possible to Split Financial and Political Matters?
One of the main changes proposed by the governance review is the separation of the governance of the Students Union into two halves, a financial one (the board) and a political one (the senate). The board is to be made up of trustees, some of whom may not be students. Socialist Students is opposed to any non-students having a vote in the running of the students union. The senate is supposed to be a newer, more dynamic replacement for the executive and council with a range of new committees reporting to it.
There are several reasons to be concerned about these proposals though. Firstly, just because a new structure has been created doesn’t automatically mean that students will step forward to fill up these structures.
Secondly, we would contest the assertion that financial and political matters of the union should be separate, the funding allocated to various areas of union activity is a political decision. What would happen if, for example, the senate decided to campaign on an issue, but the board decided it was financially beyond the means of the student union, would this mean the campaign would be scrapped? Or would a fundraising drive be launched to meet the estimated gap? This is a political decision, but could easily be vetoed by the board on 'apolitical' grounds, or face delays before the next senate to discuss its viability. It's not that difficult to imagine things bouncing between senate and board for up to a year, whilst valuable campaigning time is lost.
Charity or Union?
Entangled in this process is the whole question of the 2006 Charities Act. The only change that the Charities Act forces on Student Unions is to register as a charity in their own right, rather than deriving charitable status from their University. We do not have to change our structure or anything else under the act. Rather the suggestion for students unions to change their structure has come down from the NUS Executive, the new structure being proposed is based on the structure NUS is in the process of adopting. NUS are even running sessions for Student Union officers where they are trying to push this structure.
This structure runs hand in hand with NUS’ education funding strategy which proposes NUS’ campaigning should be based around the failed tactic of lobbying the government, this is the tactic that saw top-up fees be put in place and missed the opportunity for a mass demonstration outside. In reality NUS is moving towards becoming a commercialised charity that attempts to mitigate bad government policy affecting students, rather than a campaigning organisation fighting for improvements in the conditions of students. This is why Socialist Students argues that NUS and Student Unions should be organised like campaigning, democratic trade unions rather than commercialised charities.
Part and parcel of a democratic, campaigning organisation is the mass involvement of its membership. At present this certainly does not happen with the Students Union. The main reason why General Meetings remain quorate is that standing committees, societies and sports clubs have to send people there to avoid losing funding from the Students Union, and when they’re there they can’t wait to leave. It isn’t that students are apathetic, many do care about many things, but that Student Unions are apathetic towards students. Bangor Students Union currently does not carry out mass campaigns reflecting the needs of students. Such campaigns would be on issues such as fees, course cuts and living conditions and would get a response from students.
The lack of engagement with students can be seen from consultation process. Although the student union has held quite a few consultation meetings, and sent an e-mail to all students this is far from enough. Student Union officers have been working on these proposals for 18 months now, why has it taken until January 2008 to involve ordinary students? Socialist Students argue that a genuine consultation would not have been held during an exam period, and would have been much better advertised with posters around campus and articles in Seren for example as well as involving student union representatives going and explaining these issues to students in halls of residences and by conducting stalls.
For A Democratic, Campaigning Students Union
To engage students a democratic, campaigning union is needed that will fight for the interests of students is needed. This will not happen overnight but steps can be taken by the Student Union to move towards this.
A matter of urgency is the currently non-functioning Camapigns sub-committee of the Students Union, this must be rebuilt with a mandate to build a mass campaign on issues like fees, student debt and the need for free education. As a step towards this Socialist Students have been contacting other campaigning and political students societies about forming a campaigns collective to collaborate with each other on our own campaigns as well as creating the potential to organise campaigns on other issues that affecting students.
Of course, the mass of students should be involved in deciding the campaigning priorities of the students union. This is why Socialist Students is calling on the Students Union to organise a general meeting that is well publicised and built for across campus, that any student or group can make proposals in the form of motions for campaigns to this meeting which are then voted on mandating the student union to run those campaigns.
• Stop the governance review – keep the current governance structure
• Halt the current consultation – for a full consultation which consists of many well advertised, built for meetings and held outside of exam periods
• Launch a local campaign (and push for a national campaign) against fees and for grants, support the Campaign to Defeat Fees Day of Action on the 21st February (contact us for more info on this)
• Support the formation of a Campaigns Collective to promote the work of campaigning student societies
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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