Trustees not to be trusted with democracy: Board abuses power and overturns democratic decisions

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.

Signed

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

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16 Responses to Trustees not to be trusted with democracy: Board abuses power and overturns democratic decisions

  1. Cherry says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that the university is continuing to bully students and treat people with contempt. This has been happening over the last few years. If I were you I’d make sure the local news gets to hear of it too.

  2. Kai Weston says:

    As a graduate of the University, I am disgusted by this. I had considered returning to the University for postgraduate study, that is now out of the question. I could not attach myself to an institution which has such a flagrant disregard for student democracy. Actually, it extends beyond that, for it is not only that these decisions are undemocratic, but also the content of the decisions. This betrays an utter contempt toward students, combined with a fundamental gap in understanding of issues relating to student welfare. The fact that this has come from a body within the Guild rather than the University itself makes it all the more shocking.

    I will not be returning to the University of Birmingham, and should I ever be asked to provide alumni contributions, the University can forget it.

  3. Harry says:

    “Any illusion that the Guild of Students is student-led and democratic was thrown out of the window this evening.” – This notion was thrown out of the window a long time ago, and not by the Trustees.

  4. ghjackson206 says:

    Congratulations, Trustee Board. You have successfully removed all the officers that represent the minority groups that are present at this university. Consequently you have successfully silenced the voices of those who most need to represent themselves at this university, in fact the ones that most deserve to HAVE a voice.

    The Trustee Board come across as very narrow-minded, very prejudiced, ageist, sexist, homophobic AND racist having done this without taking anybody’s opinion into account.

  5. Mark Cassidy says:

    What you describe is an outrage. As a former President (1979-80) I used to be proud of my association with the Guild. Now I am ashamed and saddened. Our undergraduates here (Portsmouth) won’t be getting any recommendation from me to pursue postgraduate study at the University of Birmingham. And I shall be writing to the Alumni Association to ask that my name be removed be from their records.

  6. Pingback: Birmingham SU Trustee Board attacks democracy — National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts

  7. DT says:

    I’m normally pro-Trustee boards…but if the facts are as presented in this article then that is absolutely overstepping the mark.

    • Let's just think for a moment . . . says:

      I seriously doubt that the facts presented in this article are an accurate representation of what happened. It’s very likely that the PT officers have been replaced by more inclusive and open liberation structures that allow more students to get involved and shape their own liberation. This democratic review came about because students feel increasingly disenfranchised with the Guild and it’s absurd grandstanding wanna-be politicians. The trustee board likely considered the views of council (a relic from the past of democratic theory) and decided that some of its views would not be an effective addition to the new democratic structures.

      The trustee board is responsible for ensuring good governance and legal compliance. Rewriting the articles of association and bye-laws is an important part of this and a part of the democratic review.

      I suggest that this whole situation be looked at objectively and a compromise be reached. This would be better than having a bitter officer come out and attack the rest of the team because they didn’t get their way.

      Facts > rhetoric

      • hattiecraig says:

        I don’t really understand how you can claim that my article is infactual and then go on the make wild speculations about what the model is proposing and why the Trustee Board overturned their decision with no evidence to back this up and then present this as fact. The review is not proposing more inclusive and open liberation structures, it is removing part-time officers who are elected cross-campus, give greater visibility to these groups, work hard on campaigns and afford students from these groups a greater voice. The only change is a vague, nebulous suggestion that the associations will be given some more support with no clear detail on what this will entail. Most importantly, people representing these groups have come out against the changes and quite frankly it’s their opinion that matters far more than yours or the Trustee Board’s. It is not up to a handful of people in a room to decide that they know better than students and break their own bye-laws in order to pursue their own agenda.

        I am not attacking the rest of the officer team. I am criticising the decisions taken by the Trustee Board. The officers all have their own voices and can say how they voted/would have voted, what they thought about the decisions. We are all accountable, but we cannot be held accountable if the student body aren’t aware of the decisions we’re making. This is not about “getting my own way”, what I think of the changes Guild Council made is irrelevant and I voted in favour of keeping them whether I agreed personally or not, because that is what a Trustee Board is supposed to do, except in the circumstances clearly outlined in our bye-laws.

  8. Pingback: VPE accuses Trustees of Ignoring Students’ Opinions Redbrick | University of Birmingham

  9. CJF says:

    Raise your own trust fund from Alumni of the guild, acquire your own premises. Start a student society which has no oversight from the University at all and provides the welfare services that people need and rely on. Then you can do what you like. If the University takes umbrage with having a student society of Birmingham university which is independent of the university, then tell them they should have student society which is not independent of students.

  10. Pingback: Vote NO to the Democratic Structures and Officer Review Referendum | BEMA

  11. Pingback: Voting intentions for Guild Council 22/5/2014 | BEMA

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