Opinion: Lincoln students, we need to talk about our Students’ Union

The University of Lincoln Students’ Union is failing to represent their students writes Postgraduate Officer Bradley Allsop.

I love the University of Lincoln Students’ Union. Our officers work hard and do a lot of good, we provide fantastic services and commercial venues and have really grown and professionalised.

Yet there are some deep, deep flaws in how we run as a union which require urgent reform if we are to properly fight for the best deal for students.

I do not write this out of spite or a desire to unfairly criticise – I do so as a part-time officer frustrated at not being able to properly represent the students that have elected me.

As a union, we are supposed to be run by students, for students, but we lack some of the basic building blocks any democracy worth its salt should have, severely limiting our ability to win positive changes for students. Lincoln SU is failing those it is supposed to represent. Let me explain.

Photo: Bradley Allsop

If you want to have some sort of say in what we do as a union, there are currently three ways of doing so: monthly All Student Meetings (ASMs), the online ‘SUggestions’ site and online voting on officer reports. All three of these are deeply flawed.

An ASM requires at least 50 students to attend to be ‘quorate’. Without this number, nothing can be formally voted on, which means no new ideas or policy that can improve students’ lives and tackle campus problems can be passed. None of the three meetings last term had more than 30 in attendance. It’s easy to blame this on apathy, but they have so far been poorly advertised- if students don’t know something is happening, they can’t turn up.

The online SUggestions process is little better with rarely more than 100 non-representative students voting on a proposal and the process lacking any way for proper debate and deliberation to occur much beyond a crude comment section for each SUggestion. The system relies more on the popularity and reach of the proposer who can get a lot of friends to vote for and share their SUggestion, rather than a mechanism that implements the genuine, considered will of the student body.

It is also a system completely controlled by elected officers with the president and union chair able to block any motion for any reason (see bye-law 3.1.3) and officers choosing to ‘fast-track’ any motion they wish. This involves removing it from the voting mechanism and doing it anyway, regardless of the voting process. Another check on all decisions made is that they are subject to approval by the Board of Trustees, yet we don’t directly elect any of these individuals either.

Finally, officers no longer are required to give their reports in person to an elected council, or even ASMs. They simply upload them online for people to vote and comment on – something no one ever does. I say this as a part-time officer who submits these reports as I am not being properly held to account by this system, and it needs to change. When we combine this poor accountability process with the fact that ASMs are poorly advertised, the SUggestions forum is essentially controlled by the officer team and we have no checks and balances on the power beheld by a handful of people.

All of this has left us with a weakened union. From the president’s recent statement on tuition fee rises that heaped praise on a vice-chancellor who did nothing to stop this, a refusal to join many other SUs and NUS in boycotting NSS (which will be used by the government to rank universities, with the best scoring paying higher fees), to the refusal to hold by-elections when we lost executive officers. We have a union, time and again, unwilling to take a principled stand, or to truly involve ordinary students in its deliberations.

It doesn’t have to be like this. A fully-elected student council where each college and liberation group elects a number of councillors proportional to the percentage of the student body they represent, whose meetings are live-streamed on our website and councillors are held accountable to their constituents, would offer a properly attended council that could get real and positive policy passed.

As well, much more could be done to advertise these events, from text and email reminders, posters around campus, lecture shout-outs and flyering, to a more rigorous social media campaign.

Removing the controls the officers have on the SUggestions forum and opening up more space for online discussion (the president is considering this) and having at least some student trustees directly elected (as they once were) would also inject more transparency and democracy into proceedings.

We need a culture within our union of working closely with the university but also being willing to challenge. We are first and foremost a union of students, not simply a service provider or marketing arm for the university.

I love this union, I love Lincoln. I’m not some sort of rabid politico with a dark and hidden agenda. I simply want, as an officer, to be able to have the tools at my disposal to properly represent the students, to have a union that has my back in doing so and to have mechanisms that hold me accountable.

Only once we have this can we really call ourselves a union and do much more to improve the lives of Lincoln students-without them, we are failing.

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