SURHUL, UCU and referendums

Apologies if you’re not a student, student of Royal Holloway, or otherwise in the mood for some politics. If you just read my blog for the geek stuff, move on.

I don’t like politics. I stay out of it when I can and when I get involved it’s because I actually think things are too important for me to just hide away. Student politics has a habit of turning nasty on a dime and I can do without the stress.

So why on earth am I bringing this mess to my humble home away from Facebook? Well, simple: I think it’s too important not to. Specifically a lot of people seem to misunderstand the issue and Facebook’s a crap place for good discussion and explanation. SURHUL tried to put up a page explaining both sides of the motion but I and several other people on both sides think it’s crap. So here’s my take on it.

A disclaimer, first: I support wholeheartedly UCU for deciding to take action. It’s sensible, pragmatic, and a reasonable approach given the evidence I’ve seen. I also voted against. However, I think that what’s needed here is a good, hard look at what happened to lead to a referendum. I’m not going to try and make your mind up for you. Let’s have a look at the motion itself and some surrounding stuff.

You can view the motion by clicking here, and the motion as it was originally proposed by clicking here (.doc, sorry – the SU doesn’t publish in PDF or TXT).

So why is this a contentious motion at all? Well, I was at the general meeting when this was proposed, and the motion was initially thrown out for being unconstitutional. That’s an interesting term in the context of the SU- it basically says “This motion goes against what SURHUL is meant to do, so we’re not allowed to discuss it because if it succeeded we’d be going against our own constitution”. Specifically, the motion went against point 2.2.c-stating that one of the functions of the SU was “To cater for the welfare and needs of all its members”. Now, this is where it gets complex.

Kieran Miles, who originally proposed the motion along with Dan Cooper, pointed out that in a previous GM the topic of the NUS Woman’s Rep was discussed despite being deemed unconstitutional, and the floor thus (after some to-ing and fro-ing) opened to debate. However, there were some amendments. A lot of this was because of this little line in the original motion:

[This Union Believes] 2. That whilst a strike may momentarily inconvenience students whose lectures will be interrupted, it is more important that lecturers are able to fight for their pensions and other working rights

This was the point that was most against the constitution as it specifically said that it would potentially inconvenience students and that students were less important in this regard than lecturers.

It’s worth noting at this point in the GM that the meeting hadn’t really started- the agenda hadn’t been approved. Overturning discussion of the motion was voted down (35 against 22, with 7 abstentions) and the agenda was subsequently approved, 40 to 12. And then a general meeting happened- the usual things, essentially, till we then got to the motion in support of UCU discussion. We started off with some for/against speeches as is protocol- this was an exchange between Kieran Miles, Beth Rowley, Dan Cooper and Emma Best. The speeches for focused mainly on the problems lecturers faced, and that the impact would be limited to 2 days of strike action this term. Dan Cooper also claimed the SU had a “pivotal role” in defending lecturers. Beth Rowley reiterated that the SU priority was the students.

Now, the people who were trying to put this through were arguing that it was “highly speculative” that there would be disruption to students. The SU’s president, Rachel Pearson, pointed out (quite rightly) that the problem with this particular point was not it’s political nature but the fact that it was not in the interest of students.

The SU is always about students, as defined constitutionally in 2.2, and so the point I mentioned above got slimmed down to this in an amendment from Dave Cobb:

[This Union Believes] 2. It is important that lecturers are able to fight for their pensions and other working rights

After this amendment was approved, Joe Rayment suggested that the motion should go to referendum as a GM was not particularly representative of the student body. Kieran Miles pointed out that there was advance notice on the SU website several days in advance. Victor Garcia (VPSA) and Stef Phillips both urged for a referendum, with Stef Phillips pointing out that a referendum was the fairest approach.

At this stage, Rustam Majainah claimed that it was clear that exams would not be affected and that a referendum might be a “misrepresentation”. I’m not quite sure what it would be a misrepresentation of, mind you… UCU reps were not present so some fact-checking was going on and so on. Eventually, a referendum vote was held and passed 34 to 18, with 8 abstentions. Rhiannon French came in with a last-minute amendment- and this is an interesting one. Here’s a chunk from the original proposed motion:

[This Union Mandates] 3. That SURHUL will support future UCU industrial and strike action in opposition to austerity measures by the current government.

Now, that’s mighty dangerous in my view. That’s a “whatever UCU does we’re cool with, forever or until someone gets enough support to change it” clause. When you’re talking about UCU being a body that is currently striking in a manner that has the potential to impact students, that’s hugely irresponsible to suggest. Rhiannon’s amendment eventually gave us the following:

[This Union Mandates] 3. That SURHUL will discuss its stance on future UCU action as the need arises.

Which is a much more sensible approach, if you ask me. That got through with 42 for, 2 against, and 5 abstentions. A vote held asking if we were going to put the amended amended version to referendum went through with 43 for, 3 against and 1 abstention.

Now, that’s how it came to be. And as I approach a thousand words I appreciate you’re probably asleep now. So let’s get to the exciting stuff!

Just kidding. There isn’t any. But there is the motion as it stands for referendum.

The important thing in my opinion is to be able to tell the difference between students supporting lecturers and mandating support from an organization to support lecturers.

And another important thing to note is how discussion of SURHUL’s stance on future UCU action might take place.

If the referendum goes through, and we support UCU this coming week as they strike, that’s all well and good perhaps. Though note that if your dissertation is late getting marked or you miss a class or anything like that, SURHUL can’t help you as much as they could. Which is a worry. But now consider this: While UCU hasn’t published any upcoming strike dates beyond next week (and why would they? Stopping people from planning in advance is a great way to help maximise the impact of a strike), several lecturers have explained in writing that they are going to strike for a longer period in the middle of exams next term if there’s no progress talking to management.

Now- Rhiannon French’s original proposal was to add the phrase subject to referendum in to the end of the original text. However, that was not the text we ended up with and future discussions would be likely to result in a decision being made by a General Meeting. This is dangerous because GMs are poorly attended and thus susceptible to popular groups getting all their friends to attend and vote for them. This may well not be in the interests of the students and could lead to a position where SURHUL is completely going against the majority of student’s wishes. This isn’t a good place to be in, clearly.

There’s another matter at play and that’s just simply asking why SURHUL needs to be supporting lecturers who have their own union. If a motion were proposed that said “SURHUL will support lecturers defending their own pay and pension etc interests so long as this does not conflict with the constitution” (obviously better worded, but you get the drift) I’d probably have voted for it and there wouldn’t be any problem with the suggestion from most people. If all we’re talking about is solidarity then the ACA and friends would be happy and everyone would just be able to be happy and get along. However, because this motion seeks to mandate SURHUL’s support in all situations, this is a much more damaging motion for students than it need be. It’s not a sensible or pragmatic motion, and it’s not doing anyone any favours on any side of any table, and that’s why I voted no. If you’ve not voted yet, go vote. Whichever way you want, obviously. But do your research before you vote.

Oh, and if you’re annoyed at how we vote, go have a read of my thoughts on improving how we vote at SURHUL.