A referendum to radically transform the democratic mechanisms of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) has set off waves of criticism across campus, as frustrations mount over perceived communication failures and structural issues with the voting process.
The referendum, for which online voting opened last Thursday, is part of a six-month effort on the part of the EUSA 2015/16 sabbatical team to revise the current procedures of the students’ association in order to improve engagement and address systemic problems. Comprising a broad range of changes, the provisions are the end-result of two years of consultation with over 5,000 students, the sabbatical officers have said.
But opposition has flared around accusations of a lack of transparency. Critics say inadequate attention was drawn to the referendum’s existence in the weeks leading up to the voting period, preventing a “No” campaign from being established in time. Others have taken aim at the structure of the vote itself, arguing that the binary, all-inclusive nature of the question prevents voters from distinguishing between good and bad reforms.
Taking place online over a two week voting period, the referendum is the culmination of several months of review and consultation in conjunction with the National Union of Students (NUS), including an online survey that garnered 1500 responses and two NUS-led workshops.
Among the provisions put to vote are a widespread re-categorisation of the current student representative categories; the establishment of part-time paid positions for representatives of liberation groups and university colleges; a new appointment process for four additional students to the Trustee Board, selected by a panel; and the introduction of a second term opportunity for sabbatical officers.
The motion also contains a proposal to put contentious Student Council motions to a student-wide referendum if they receive between 33 and 66 per cent of the vote in the room.
Together, the policies would represent one of the most transformative shifts in years for the students’ association, which has existed in some form since 1884.
Sabbatical officers say the reforms are informed by extensive consultation and represent the will of the student body.
“This proposal comes after consultation with 5,000 students, who said they wanted their students’ union to be more representative of all students across all our campuses,” Jonny Ross-Tatam, EUSA president and co-author of the motion, told The Student. “Particularly, it’s going to see contentious issues that are voted on at Student Council in central campus go to an online ballot open to all students.”
But despite EUSA’s research outreach, the referendum itself appeared much less widely known. Many on campus expressed surprise when the pro-Yes Facebook page was unveiled the first day of voting. Within days entitled
“What Referendum? Vote No” attracted several dozen likes in the first few days.
“Until we came along it seems EUSA wanted to keep this as their little secret,” the page’s description read.
Other students were quick to describe the single-question structure as a deal breaker.
“For me, lumping all the proposals into the same question is indicative of how badly EUSA has handled this whole affair,” philosophy and politics student Maia Almeida-Amir told The Student. “All the proposals are so different to include them all in one question is just incredibly confusing.”
Sabbatical officers have rejected charges of poor transparency.
Responding to criticism at Student Council last week, Andy Peel, Vice President Societies and Activities, said that the calling notice had been published on the EUSA homepage a week earlier, included in the all student news email and mentioned consistently in sabbatical reports.
“We feel that we’ve done a good job of publicising the fact that there will be a referendum,” Peel said.
Macikene confirmed that the referendum would proceed as planned and that no changes would be made to the question format.
“We decided that because we had done ten months of consultation working towards these final proposals that we would propose them together and the opportunity would be for people no to that if they disagreed with it,” she said.
A debate on the issue was set to be held Wednesday afternoon.
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