The Student

Referendum rollout fiasco should not deter us from voting for change

Night shot of the facade of Teviot on opening night 15.6.2011

Let us all agree on one thing: the rollout for the EUSA democracy referendum was a disaster.

It was sparsely advertised. It was denied any credible chance for debate. Its obscurity starved the public of reasonable consideration and precluded an effective No campaign.

Some have attacked it for mashing too many disparate provisions into one proposal, an issue that might have been pre-empted with better consultation. Others have indicated they will oppose it on principle, taking a stand against the perceived lack of transparency.

That would be a shame.  Rollout optics aside, the provisions in place are well reasoned and worthwhile of consideration.  In stitching together the proposal, sabbatical officers have given us the most substantive opportunity in years to attempt to address a broken system and create a more representative student democracy for good.

It is important to appreciate the present situation. For years, poor advertisement, broad unawareness and general apathy have driven student engagement to abysmally low figures, resulting in a process dominated by an esoteric cadre of only the most active members. Student Council meetings, intended to be the most direct and regular democratic mechanisms, are instead sparsely attended, glorified approval mechanisms, where few proposals are meaningfully debated or challenged.  The ones that do prove contentious fall on deaf ears; few directly affected even know to show up.

Meanwhile, sabbatical officers cram their manifestos with litanies of projects and campaigns, burdening themselves with mandates often divorced from the realities of their actual roles.

The reforms put to referendum will by no means solve any of this. Yet they are a start.

To begin, the redesign of the sabbatical positions is a welcome and overdue change. Increasing the team to five positions will relieve strain on officers currently stretched hopelessly thin.  Adding specialisation, such as a sabbatical officer specifically assigned to housing and living situations, will increase efficiency and deter candidates from tacking on unwieldy side-projects to their agendas where their role does not call for it. This campus has also long needed a dedicated Welfare Officer.

The inclusion of paid part time liberation officers is also worth celebrating. Representation of marginalised groups is one of the most important roles of any student union. Adding a salary will allow for a broader selection of candidates, and ensure that those who do get the role will have adequate time to dedicate to important causes.

Finally, the new mechanism to put contentious student council votes to online vote may be the most crucial change of all. Last semester, a vote to remove arms companies from EUSA careers fairs passed with 45 votes in favour, 20 votes against, and five abstentions. The vote was by all means fair according to the current voting processes. But by forcing such a divisive issue to be decided in person at a set location in Central campus, the process effectively shut out the very STEM students it would affect, many of whom said the move would have a negative effect on their career prospects.  A subsequent survey found 80 out of 100 respondents opposed the motion in the engineering school alone, with 72 saying they didn’t even know it existed.

The new provisions would have prevented this absurdity. By forcing votes with less than a 66 per cent majority to go to online vote, the process would have given voice to those 80 opposed.  The end result might not necessarily have been defeat; it is entirely possible that more at this university would favour the ban. But it would at least have ensured a better representation of our 35,000 strong student body than 45 members in the Debating Hall could ever credibly claim.

Situations such as these demonstrate that the ridicule and exasperation directed at our students’ association is often richly deserved. Yet given the extensive student surveys and workshops over the span of months, it is more than clear that the sabbatical officers are aware of the problem.

Their solution is not perfect. It provides no direct remedy to the issue of student turnout, which will surely continue. It remains unclear how increasing the number of school representatives will do anything to diversify the issues and campaigns, when many conveners barely engage with the process already. Moreover, awarding representatives weighted votes is hardly likely to inspire them to consult with their constituents more.

Yet for all its rough edges, the tangible benefits of the proposal are clear and persuasive.

We have before us a bold and earnest opportunity to tackle real, endemic problems that have plagued our student democracy for years. We should consider it seriously.