Thursday, 20 December 2007

The factionalised nature of the student movement

Student unions have been around for a long time and provide students with a number of different services. The University of St. Andrews Student Association, started in 1864, is the oldest in Britain. Since that time the student movement has seen a number of changes, one of the most notable being in 1994, when the Education Act was implemented. This defined the basic purposes of a union, the composition of membership and what it required to have in place.

According to the Act, this is the meaning of a student union:
"(a) an association of the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies whose principal purposes include promoting the general interests of its members as students; or

(b) a representative body (whether an association or not) whose principal purposes include representing the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies in academic, disciplinary or other matters relating to the government of the establishment."
So, student unions must represent their members in the areas of (at least) academic issues and welfare. This isn't just on campus - they also represent their members at conferences such as the NUS Annual Conference (which will become the Annual Congress because of the recent governance review). Therefore part of or all of the executive of a union must not represent the agenda of anyone else, such as a national political faction.

Why then, do I see things such as the presence of factions like Student RESPECT, Labour Students and Education Not for Sale at e.g. conferences? It's an interesting question.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having socities at student unions that relate to political parties and discuss e.g. national and regional issues from their perspective. However, if a student union executive is dominated by members of a faction and attempt to implement policies which always echo the views of said faction, it's possible that they are no longer representing the views of that university's student populus. This means they are contradicting the definition stated in the Education Act.

How can you stop factions from having this sort of influence though? It is certainly difficult. If it's obvious that the manifesto of a potential union president is faction-centric and not student-focused, it's up to the voter to decided whether that candidate is unsuitable. Due to the nature of student apathy though, it is more likely that factions get a foothold as their members will be the active few who are certainties to vote.

The only way is to get the apathetic majority interested in student politics, but without being biased. That balanced viewpoint will then lead to all unions being run by people who comply with the Education Act definition. It will also lead to a National Union of Students who is always student-focused.

Don't assume that I think the whole student movement is factionalised though. From my time in the student movement I have known many examples of executives and individual executive members who are active, but present balanced viewpoints. These are the 'independents'.

These people must not be confused with the 'Organised Independents (more commonly known as the OIs)' who ironically have the word independent in their name, but act as a group. Stephen Brown, the current National Secretary of the National Union of Students once made this comment about OIs on an entry in my now-discontinued education blog (it was difficult to generate enough education content worthy of a separate blog):
"We work together on common issues but do not take a line from an outside organiser."
Hmmm. They may not be influenced by a third-party, but they do come together on various issue and agree a way to approach them. That means they are a faction. Mr. Brown has managed to contradict himself.

I applaud any union who actively tries to eradicate student apathy. It might be a long and difficult task, but if nothing if done it's certain that the apathetic masses will grow.

The 'Vote 2008' campaign that Hull University Union is currently implementing is a great idea. Having something there from the beginning to the end of the academic year means that minor elections get more prominence and there will potentially be interest growing throughout the year which results in an increased voter turnout for the major union executive elections.

Maybe I seem old-fashioned, but I believe that student union executives should comply with legislation and represent the views of it's members and work on issues that are relevant to them, instead of executives being proxies for national political factions.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Students, Politics, Student Unions

Friday, 14 December 2007

The Men's Officer Referendum

First of all I think I need to explain why a referendum is happening. In the recently revised Constitution for Hull University Union, it states that Referenda decide union policy and the Open Policy Forums (that any student can attend) decide what goes to a referendum. A number of these happen throughout the academic year. Any policy decided by referenda lapses after three years (this means that it stops being a piece of union policy).

Now for the subject of one of the votes - the abolition of the Men's Officer. The minutes of the Open Policy Forum where this was originally proposed can be found here(November 19th) and the relevant section is below:
  1. There is no need for a Men’s Officer as this diminished the effectiveness of all the other liberation campaigns.
  2. Men are unfairly over-represented in both society and the structure of the Student’s Union.
  3. Issues in the Men’s Officer remit can be easily dealt with by the Health Officer and HUSAC.
  1. Men are discriminated against in society, for example, job quota filling and higher unemployment rates.
  2. If there is no Men’s Officer position then there is no support for men who are victims."
It's also important to note that the National Union of Students doesn't have a Men's Officer and a lot of people within the NUS don't believe one should ever exist (I know this from my time as a sabbatical officer at HUU and the fact that the NUS Women's Officer - Kat Stark - is signed up to the Facebook group approving the abolition of the position).

Now I'll address the points raised in the Open Policy Forum.

"...diminished the effectiveness of all the other liberation campaigns."

I'm not entirely sure how this could happen. The other liberation groups are Women, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender), Disabled Students and Black Students (those four are the NUS Liberation campaigns too). All committees/officers have clearly defined job descriptions in the student union standing orders. The Men's Offer does not represent women. That person does not represent men on issues covered by other campaigns either.

"Men are unfairly over-represented in both society and the structure of the Student’s Union."

Was the second part of that point made because the current Union Executive Committee has eight men and two women? That didn't happen because women were oppressed. In some of the previous executive committees there have been equal numbers or more women than men. For instance, in 2004/2005, there were four men and four women. In 2005/2006 there were five women and three men. The executive teams were elected because the voters felt that they had the necessary skills and experience to do the job well.

The student union also has a long-standing equal opportunities policy which states everyone can join any clubs and societies. This means that there are no instances of women being prevented from joining. Both men and women can go for executive positions in clubs and societies too . For example, the current President of the Drama Society is a Woman. The current President of the Labour club is a woman.

So, what about society? Well, first of all, the positions that are being talked about in this post do not have a responsibility for the whole of society in England (or any other country). Those positions have a responsibility to represent the relevant group(s) of students at the University of Hull. Secondly, there are plenty of examples of women in high ranking positions all over the world. For example, there is a female member of the University's Senior Management Team and there are several university departments that have senior members of staff who are female.

Outside the university, there are even more examples. Angela Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany, the Queen is our sovereign, Hillary Clinton is a potential future President of the United States. Condoleezza Rice is the US Secretary of State and Nancy Pelosi is the current speaker in the United States Congress. You might also remember Margaret Thatcher - one of our former Prime Ministers.

Remember the 'Blair Babes' from 1997 when Tony Blair was elected as the Prime Minister? There were celebrations about how many women were in positions of power. That doesn't seem like an example of women being oppressed to me.

"Issues in the Men’s Officer remit can be easily dealt with by the Health Officer and HUSAC."

Interesting point. I agree that it's logical for men's health issues to be managed by the Health Officer. However, they've defeated themselves by mentioning the Student Advice Centre (HUSAC). This is because they could also deal with some women's issues and some matters that are covered by other liberation groups. Surely this means that there is no need for a Women's Officer too!

"Men are discriminated against in society, for example, job quota filling and higher unemployment rates."

This is definitely true. In a Guardian article from 2005, it was reported that the Hansard Society felt that all-women shortlists are the only way to increase the number of women in the House of Commons. However, using all-women shortlists means that men are prevented from going for a particular position, which is a form of positive discrimination.

There are plenty of examples of women being strategically positioned around the PM during Prime Minister's Question Time to highlight the fact that Labour includes a number of women. However, preventing some men from sitting where they want because they are a man is a form of positive discrimination.

A Men's Officer is required within Hull University Union to ensure that there are no examples of positive discrimination.

"If there is no Men’s Officer position then there is no support for men who are victims."

True. What about men who are abused by women? The Women's Officer doesn't deal with that. There needs to be representation for men.

As you can tell, I believe that there should be a Men's Officer. You couldn't have one officer represented both genders so it's sensible to have one for each and then both genders feel that they have representation.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Equality, Liberation, Representation, Democracy