Last night we witnessed an overt breach of democracy and abuse of power.
Our Trustee Board, which is in the majority unelected, has numerous non-students and includes a University representative, threw out the majority of the decisions taken by Guild Council surrounding the Democratic Structures Review and Officer Review, after it carefully amended it for over ten hours.
They voted to abolish the Ethnic Minority Students’ Officer, Disabled Students’ Officer, Women’s Officer, LGBTQ Officer, Home Students’ Officer, Mature and Part-Time Students’ Officer, International Students’ Officer, Satellite Sites’ Officer, Ethical and Environmental Officer, Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism Officer, and Community Action Officer. All have been abolished with no democratic vote, despite Guild Council voting to keep all Non-Sabbatical Officers just a week ago.
These are all campaigning positions. Last night they succeeded in removing officers who have over the years represented and campaigned for the least represented and oppressed students at the University, and Officers that have won vital gains for the student body. The Trustee Board has succeeded in removing one of the primary means by which we represent and organise for the least privileged students.
The Trustees voted to overturn the decision to include four full-time Liberation Officers, an amendment which passed with a huge majority in Guild Council and offered the Guild the opportunity to lend power and resources to by far the most disadvantaged students at this University.
But the transgression of democracy far exceeded this. Out of the 15 amendments passed by Guild Council, only 7 were passed by the Trustees.
Amendments to change the composition of the Assessment Group, add Representative Speakers from Associations, and give students the ability to give steers to Sabbatical Officers on a monthly basis all fell. An increase in the number of forums where Officers are held to account, adding Questions and Scrutiny to Guild Assemblies, and the ability to propose amendments were also all rejected.
The basis upon which they rejected these democratically decided upon amendments far exceeded the narrow powers upon which the Trustee Board are meant to base their decisions. Page 15 of the Guild Bye-Laws read: “In accordance with Article 99, Guild Council decisions can be overturned by the Trustee Board for financial, legal or Guild reputation issues.” Time and time again, as each amendment was discussed, what was made clear from the discussion was that they were being rejected because of personal opinions. None of these amendments had legal or reputational implications and the additional financial resources required to implement almost all these changes was negligible, often hinging on some additional staff time.
What happened tonight was a group of 11 people decided they knew better than Guild Council and could ignore their decisions at will. To quote one Trustee: “we can do what we want.” Any illusion that the Guild of Students is student-led and democratic was thrown out of the window this evening.
This represents the vast power that Trustees have to override the democratic decisions of students. From the start, the Democratic Structures Review and Officer Review were inherently undemocratic. The new models were designed on the basis of an external consultant’s interpretation of market research. However much of an expert this consultant is, his findings represent one person’s interpretation of the research, backed by a small group of Officers, many of whom later disagreed with substantial parts of the models. The whole point of the models going to Guild Council was to allow student oversight and democratic control of the process. After all, students’ unions are supposed to be student-led. Only giving students a say in the Referendum gives students a binary choice over the existing model or the new model. By the models going to Guild Council, it allowed students to amend any problematic parts of the models, thus permitting student input not just in the form of filling in a survey, but through actively shaping their democratic structures. If the Trustee Board can simply choose to ignore Guild Council’s decisions based on whether they agree with them or not, then this destroys the whole point of the reviews ever being heard there in the first place.
It is clear that Trustee Boards have limitless, unchecked power to overturn or make any decisions they like about students’ unions with complete impunity. There is nothing to stop them doing this with any decision we ever make, under the current system or the new. In fact, under the new system, even more power is placed in the hands of Sabbatical Officers and Trustees with even less ability to hold them to account on a regular basis, even though students overwhelmingly didn’t want elected representatives making decisions on their behalf.
Both of us feel that we have no choice but to publish what happened last night. The two of us were the only two Trustees to vote in favour of everything that Guild Council passed. In fact, for 6 and a half amendments (one amendment was taken in parts), we were the ONLY two Trustees in favour of them passing; the other elected Sabbatical Officer Trustees chose to go against the decisions of Guild Council on numerous occasions.
The precedent this sets is one which students must not take lying down. We should be demanding that the Trustee Board implement the changes that Guild Council has debated and decided upon and we should not accept the paternalistic attitude with which we are being treated. We feel that the contempt of students and democracy displayed at the meeting tonight was nothing short of disgusting, and if it does not go unchallenged then the Trustee Board will override decisions made by students again. We must stand up for a Guild that is student-led, that is accountable and transparently run and which treats students as the adults they are, capable of making rational decisions in their interests.
The Trustee Board should reverse its decision with immediate effect.
Hattie Craig, Vice-President (Education) and Guild Trustee; and Tom Wragg, Vice-President (Democracy and Resources) and Guild Trustee
UPDATE: A Facebook group has been set up by Birmingham students who oppose the Trustee Board’s decision. If you want to get involved with the campaign please join: https://www.facebook.com/groups/543274009127181/?fref=ts