Busting Some SU Myths

Last year we conducted a wholescale review of the democratic structures that govern the Students’ Union. One of the messages that you told us loud and clear was that you wanted more debate and discussion that was informed by evidence, and that decisions should be grounded in facts. We committed to providing more ‘mythbusting’ articles to do this, to help you, the members, understand what happens in your Union.

Over the past week I’ve seen a number of comments about the Students’ Union – both online and on posters – that simply aren’t true. And so I wanted to clarify a few things. I’d like to stress that I am making absolutely no comment on the policy being debated by you all regarding ‘no platform to hate speech on campus’ – but rather, addressing some of the inaccuracies that have been spread so you can make a genuinely informed decision.

The Democracy Review

Throughout the course of the last academic year, we undertook a Democracy Review. This was prioritised by numerous Students’ Union Presidents, elected by students on manifesto points that went to heart of addressing the lack of engagement in the old structure. This review engaged literally thousands of students across campus, involving surveys, focus groups, consultation events, face to face roadshows, and culminating in a referendum where students overwhelming voted to adopt the changes in the form of a new constitution. Far from running away from this – we’re proud that so many students were involved, had their say, and supported the outcome. You can see all the work that was involved here.

So what are the changes?

We have been talking about this for some time now so apologies if it is repetition, but some facts need to be made clear.

All student meetings were indeed abolished. For anyone that hasn’t heard of how these operated, this mechanism for engagement was seriously outdated and students simply did not engage. We had numerous meetings each year, and not more than a handful of students turned up – and in some cases, no students at all. They didn’t hold Sabbatical Officers to account, and they were extremely poor at developing policy on complex issues like careers and employability or the BAME student experience.

We replaced Councils with Student Executives. Contrary to some recent statements, Officers were meant to be held accountable by these bodies. However, as above, these were sporadically and minimally attended. The Democracy Review highlighted that accountability is more than having a quick ‘hold to account’ agenda item for less than five students whom weren’t informed well enough to perform this function. In contrast, the Student Executives ensure that students work alongside Officers, and can check on progress continually.

The Democracy Review, in the consultation process and its implementation, has nothing to hide. Everything has very clearly been laid out at every stage, and the new democratic structures are already bearing fruit, with the largest set of academic rep elections we’ve seen and policy work developing in a way that allows the full facts to be understood which is an incredible step forward.

Careers support policy inquiry

PGR policy inquiry

Setting the record straight on Students’ Union finances

Additionally, suggestions that we are making a significant ‘profit’ simply aren’t true.

At the beginning of this year, I detailed some of the basics regarding our finances in a blog that was promoted to all students, and was really well received. But to summarise things again:

Firstly, the Students’ Union is a registered charity. We have to comply with charity law. We are not for profit, which means any surplus that is generated from our venues like the Union Shop, the SU Venue or Medicine, all has to be spent on our members. We add this to the grant we get from the University, and this funds essential services like training for course reps, the Advice Centre, or staff support and grants for clubs and societies. It also funds one-off investments in things like the toilet refurbishment we did last summer, or the launch of the vegan and vegetarian offer in Humpit.

Alongside this, we occasionally get extra funding from the University for large projects, such as the refurbishment of Medicine that took place in the summer of 2018. If you look at our annual accounts, this appears like a big ‘surplus’ – but that isn’t true. It’s the way accounting works. We get all the money in one year, we actually spend it immediately, but it gets posted as ‘expenditure’ over a 10 year period through depreciation. It doesn’t mean we’ve made a large surplus – because the money has been spent.

I’m more than happy to sit down with anyone to explain this. But the message is simple: each year the Students’ Union aims to break even. We spend what we get on students. It’s that simple.

Why are we having this referendum?

Lastly, I’ve also seen some points arguing that Sabbatical Officers do not have the power to call a referendum. Again, this is not correct. Article 7 (and Byelaw B) clearly state that a referendum can be called by a majority of the Officer group. Which is exactly what has happened.

With any document as large and complex as the constitution, there are always clauses that can be read in different ways, over interpreted by those wishing to circumvent the intention of the rules. In this case, Article 5.2 regarding contemporary resolutions relates to the ability of any student to propose a motion for consideration, but empowers Student Executives to act as a gatekeeper. It does not limit the power of the Officer group, who have been elected by all students via a cross campus ballot – which to labour the point, is codified clearly in Article 7 and Byelaw B.

The referendum is entirely legitimate. It empowers you – the students – to make a decision over a policy that affects you.

On Monday 11 November, we will be hosting a Q&A drop-in opportunity, a new event to be held once every term, for a friendly chat – if anyone would like to know any more about the information detailed here (or anything else) then please do come along!

Open Q&A event

Jack O'Neill // President