Posted: Sun Dec 16, 2007 8:08 pm Post subject: Guild Governance (Yawn!)
Ownership and control, are such an important marker for how much people care about something. That;s why people like owning their own house, their little piece of the world that that they have control over. It's one of the few things that ordinary people (I use this term loosely, as I am well aware that in global terms it is very much a minority who can own their own home.) feel they have some measure of control over. Ownership and control are inextricably linked. Marx argued that this meant that for workers to be truly free that they needed to own the means of production. While the enacting of this principle was never truly realised, representative organisations (unions) and co-operatives among other things are run (at least in theory) by their members. For representative organisations to be truly representative they need to be run for their members by their members.
This is especially the case for student unions. Student Unions represent the interests of and provide for their students vis-a-vis Universities and Governments. They can only do this if they are run by their members. Where student unions differ from other types of representative organisations, is the extent of control exerted by the institutions in which student unions represent their members. Thanks to the 1994 Education Act, Universities have a massive say in how student unions run themselves. In every other walk of life this would be unacceptable, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) does not have control over the Trade Union Congress (TUC). So while workers can run their own representative organisations without help from their employers, students apparently cannot be trusted to look after their representative organisations.
This state of affairs has its most chilling embodiment in the 2006 Charity Act, this brought Student Unions into line with other charities in needing a legally compliant Trustee Board. Now while I am sure most students are all for making sure Student Unions are well-run organisations, the current progress goes beyond that. Student Unions now have to adapt to the new legal climate, however, here's the crux ladies and gentlemen, because under the 1994 Education Act any University has the veto over any constitutional changes of its student union, only University approved solutions to the the question of Good Governance will be allowed.
Now what constitutes good governance is entirely subjective, and yet it has been bandied about as if it is some sort of scientific formula. Our university believes good governance is achieved by having half student and half non-student members on the Guild of Students trustee board. Because apparently, students cannot be trusted to run their OWN organisation, it's not like we've had three years or more at what is supposedly one of the best Universities in the world or anything, ya know! While the experience of lay trustees can be valuable, they do not need to be given HALF the seats on a student union board. What's more, the university's view of what is good governance, flies in the face of what is NUS best practice, that is to say 2:1 student majority. There are those who say that this trustee board is irrelevant, that it doesn't matter, that it is just one committee, that it will just rubber-stamp. However, it has the ultimate say on any financial and legal matters in the Guild, so that'll be everything then. And why would the university have been so adamant to have at least half the trustees as lay members? If it is just a meaningless committee. The Charity Commission website itself says that a trustee is responsible for the management of a trust's activities. Seems pretty important to me.
These arguments are ones that have been hashed and rehashed for at least a year now. Everyone involved in them at the Guild seems to either have now got tired, bored, or resigned to the supposed inevitable. Either way there is a generally feeling among the Guild political clique, that they just want it to be over. This conservatism (with a small c) is something which has been part of the Guild ethos since its founding, and comes from the conservative nature of the University itself. It was this feeling that seemed to dominate the mindset of Guild Council as on 6th December it decided to approve one variant of a 50-50 split. There were only different types of 50-50 splits available to vote on, because it was argued, this was all the university would accept, and that if we did not change, the university would not give us extra funding in the future, blackmail by any other name. Universities are not supposed to pressure student democratic processes, yet this is exactly what they have done.
So there we have it, the new constitution including this trustee board is hurtling towards referendum in the first week of February, everyone has accepted that this is a good thing, and we'll all be much better off afterwards. The dis-enpowerment is palpable. Except, the referendum still needs to be won, or lost. For those that believe that student union should have a student majority on its ultimate board, for those that believe that universities have no right to force student unions into accepting what universities want, through use of their veto and financial clout, for those who believe in a Guild of Students run for students by students, then there is still the chance to make a stand against these proposals at referendum. It could be a final stand of romantic idealists, or the start of something bigger, the start of a movement, a movement for truly strong democratic student unions. It's up to you!