By Mark Lynch
The Students’ Union will hold a referendum this coming Thursday, January 23rd, in which students will be asked to vote yes or no to the motion of restructuring the Students’ Union officer roles, after gathering the 500 votes needed to hold a referendum on the matter.
The changes proposed to the structure of the SU Executive Committee, and the motion which students will vote for or against on Thursday, are three-fold.
- The first change is to reinstate the part-time position of Equality Officer on the Students’ Union Executive Committee.
- The second change is the abolition of the roles of Mature Student Officer, International Students Officer, Gender and LGBT+ Rights Officer, Disability Rights Officer and Ethnic Minorities Officer, and the removal of the SU Council Chairperson as a part-time officer.
- The third change is simply renaming the Clubs’ Captain as the ‘Clubs Officer’. This role remains otherwise entirely unchanged.
These three changes are all contained within the same motion, so students will be voting yes to all or no to all. The changes, if the referendum passes, will come into effect in the next election cycle, i.e. officers would stand for election under the new structure in Spring 2020.
The part-time Equality Officer role previously existed up until the end of the academic year 2017/18. Its existence ended as a result of a referendum held in February 2018, whereby the Equality Officer role was abolished and the roles of International Students Officer, Gender and LGBT+ Rights Officer, Disability Rights Officer were created in its place. Later that year, the student body voted to create the position of Ethnic Minorities Officer as a part-time role on the Executive Committee. This Thursday, the motion refers to the reinstating of that part-time Equality Officer role that existed until 2017/18, and the abolition of the 5 part-time officer roles that have been created in that time to work on the different aspects of equality in the student community. Equality is also within the jurisdiction of the full-time position of Vice President/Welfare and Equality Officer, currently held by Brandon Walsh. This position would not be impacted by the proposed referendum changes.
The change regarding the removal of the SU Council Chairperson is not an abolition of the position entirely, but if the referendum passes, the SU Council Chairperson will no longer be part of the Students’ Union Executive Committee. SU Council meetings would still be chaired by a Chairperson, but this would most likely be an external person, who is independent of the Executive Committee.
SU President, Clare Austick, spoke to SIN to explain how this referendum came into being. She states that it is a result of a review of the SU Constitution. “The constitutional review process began during my predecessor’s year. This year, we continued on the work of the constitutional review, with a particular focus on the composition of the executive team and the effectiveness and efficiency of roles within the exec structure. What came out of the constitutional review would have been streamlining and enhancing the functionality of the Union”.
Students’ Union divided on referendum as both sides look for a strong voting turnout
The process that led to Thursday’s referendum has been the point of much criticism, with a particular focus on transparency in the decision-making of the Students’ Union Executive Committee. Current Disability Rights Officer, Alex Coughlan, will see their role abolished, and its responsibilities come under the jurisdiction of the new Equality Officer, should the referendum pass. They are concerned about the consultation process that brought about this referendum. “I feel that far more consultation was needed before presenting the proposed changes to SU Council and going to referendum. Over the past two years, there was only one meeting open to all students to attend to discuss the executive structure, and this took place in week 11 of term, with only two days’ notice. I feel that simply does not allow for feed in from a body of almost 19,000 members, and the process should have taken place over a number of weeks, with students being given the chance to feed in and propose changes to draft versions of a document over a number of weeks”.
Ms Austick is aware of these concerns but feels some of the criticism is unfair. “Well, it started 2 years ago, so it would have started in my predecessor’s year, and ours was a follow on from that, so there would have been a consultation process, it would have been brought up at Exec meetings numerous amounts of times, with SU Council, it would have been advertised in the weekly email and on our social media platforms”.
On the motion itself, Ms Austick, who was the last Equality Officer in the year 2017/18, says it’s all about improving the way the Union is run. “It’s strengthening and streamlining the exec, increasing effectiveness and efficiency and having meaningful representation that translates into action, and to improve the functionality of the Union”. She added, “It’s about bringing back the 9 strands of equality under the one term. If there’s just representation for the sake of having a representative, it can become tokenistic and dilute the overall equality agenda. All Exec members are there to represent all students and not just necessarily their role remit”.
The SU President also added that having so many members of the Executive Committee makes it difficult to run efficiently. “I do think having 19 officers isn’t always the most productive in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and functionality in working towards a shared vision. It doesn’t always work trying to get 19 people in the same room, making cohesive decisions together for the betterment of the whole student population, so sometimes that can be putting the amount of work and function at risk”.
Alex Coughlan believes, however, that the current proposal is not the answer. “I believe that a constitutional review is needed, as the current document is 10 years old, however the specifics of the referendum question I cannot support in good faith. I fully believe that combining the work of 5 part-time officers into one, part-time, unpaid role, is promoting poor work practices. As a part-time officer, I do between 15 and 25 hours work per week”. They continued, “Even if this were to be rounded down, combining 5 of these roles easily creates 40+ hours of work. I believe that as a Union, we should be promoting excellent work practices, and asking such of one unpaid volunteer is deeply unfair and shows a lack of concern for individual welfare”.
Despite the motion largely based on reverting the structure of the SU Executive Committee back to the way it was in 2017/18, Ms. Austick doesn’t see the last 2 years of a split-up equality role as a failed experiment. “At the time, it was trialled and the great thing about the Union is it’s adaptive and reactive to the surroundings, of what students want.”.
On the other hand, the current Disability Rights Officer claims two years isn’t long enough to revert to the previous structure. “I don’t believe that this is enough time for these roles to fully develop. Furthermore, I feel that these roles are extremely important representation for students, who very rarely see themselves represented within University structures, and to remove that is removing seats at the table for marginalised students, who face particular issues when accessing third level education”.
Alex Coughlan continued, “As an example of this, many times when I attend meetings within University structures, I am the only person there with experience of disability, and as such, have raised issues that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by management”.
As a final call for a ‘yes’ vote in this referendum, the current SU President stated, “It’s not an equality referendum, it’s about the functionality, the effectiveness, the efficiency of the Union. It’s what students want and it’s to really carry out the mission of the Union and make sure that the team can work together on a shared vision and not against each other”.
On the ‘no’ side, Alex Coughlan had this to say, “As someone who is marginalised, the creation of specific roles to represent these experiences felt like being invited to sit, and share my experience and expertise with my Union. I felt empowered to be a part of that body, and in trying to remove these voices, we are all the poorer for it. I hope that the larger student body not only agrees with this, but listens to those around them who are marginalised”.
Both Officers encourage students to go out and have their say on Thursday, whichever way they vote.