Gabriel Gavin: Why I adjourned the GA

Gabriel Gavin: Why I adjourned the GA

Gabriel Gavin explains why he brought about the adjournment of the General Assembly and what he hopes to see come of it

Democracy is not a civil process. Whether you are a student protester in Hong Kong or a member of a Liberian women’s rights movement fleeing for your life, real change never comes cheaply.

Meetings of UCLU, on the other hand, rarely seem to escalate beyond tedious points of information to clarify a position of solidarity with the vegetarian activists in Kuala Lumpur. Behind a smokescreen of procedure and idealistic zeal, the votes of the 30 or so attendees are whipped fairly quickly.

Tuesday night was the exception.

For the first time in three years, enough students were in attendance to actually hold a General Assembly. Instead of the usual beret-wearing union hacks who usually dominate the scene, the thousand-seat lecture theatre was filled with students from a range of societies and other pressure groups – people who had never been to a meeting of the union and now probably will never return.

A proposal, put forward by Sam Inkersole and supported by a coalition of 26 society presidents, had created the controversy that drew this unusually large and diverse crowd. Aimed at correcting a vast deficit in UCLU finances, the proposal recommended a reduction in the number of full-time sabbatical officers, bringing the union staffing in line with other universities across the country.

Depending on who you believe, the deficit is either a welcome way to ditch our excess cash reserves, or an existential threat that will drive the union into bankruptcy within the next five years. Some, including myself, would advocate the move even without the financial pressures.

Annie Tidbury, this year’s women’s officer, made the astonishing point that an average of two self-defining women seek her help with sexual harassment and assault incidents every week. Clearly, this is a problem. It’s a problem at UCL, and it’s a problem at every university across the country. Ms. Tidbury does amazing work in near-impossible situations. However, you can recognise her service and still suggest that, as a student with limited training and qualifications, perhaps she is not best placed to respond to all of these issues.

What is needed is a closer collaboration between counselling services and the police. The UCL counselling service is woefully understaffed, so the only option would be to incorporate it within the union. And how much would it cost to employ a full-time counsellor to deal with these kinds of cases? The going rate is around the £25,000 per year mark, precisely the salary that Ms. Tidbury draws as a sabbatical officer.

But no one made that point last night.

Also left out in the cold were our newest union members, the students recently assimilated from the Institute of Education, who were not consulted.

I’m not advocating any of these as foolproof solutions, simply trying to demonstrate that money-saving structural reform need not leave student welfare out in the cold. If this movement is not about slashing essential services and student support, then we owe it to everyone who uses these services to have a frank and respectful debate on how to restructure them in a sustainable way.

Instead, we had a room polarised between different groups brought in to vote in-line with their particular affiliations. We had endless objections, teary diatribes and jilted boos from the members, particularly after Sam’s proposal won the day but failed to carry the weight of the 75% of attendees required to change the bylaws.

That’s when I called for an adjournment.

Despite achieving more than the required simple majority to adjourn the meeting, an adjournment that is in no way indefinite, the Cheese Grater chastised me for ‘throwing the toys out of the pram’. The toys haven’t been in the pram in a long time and if we don’t act soon, we won’t have any toys left at all.

With voters leaving in droves and Motion 4, an anti-proposal, set to be voted on by a fraction of the people it concerns, this was the only democratic option that leaves the window open to amendments, consultations and, hopefully, a motion that we can all stand behind. Last Tuesday was a triumph in the sense that it engaged a student body long disillusioned by its union.

We are in an era in which the David Dahlborns and Jacob Rees-Moggs of the world serve as caricatures that divide, but don’t represent. The only way to counter this is an open discussion of the entire UCL community, which is what I hope to see before a revised motion is presented to the union.

When people come together to defend their services, it’s chaotic, it’s messy and it’s terrifying for people at every level of governance whose opinions are unexpectadly unchallenged. More than that, it’s the only way to get anything done.

Featured image credit: Mimi Launder


  1. Avatar December 12, 2014 / 9:03 pm

    I’m the editor of The Cheese Grater Magazine, and it was me that tweeted that the adjournment motion was throwing the toys out of the pram. I stand by that comment.

    The purpose of the 75% majority rule to change bye-laws is to make it difficult for one group to pass controversial sweeping motions. Motion 3, as was plain from the intensity of debate on Tuesday, was not uncontroversial. So, it failed to get enough of the vote, and we could have moved on to alternatives – one of which would put the entire matter to a referendum, which the entire university could vote upon, not just the people who can turn up on an evening towards the end of term.

    But then you decided that you didn’t want that. You didn’t want debate, you didn’t want anyone to choose how their union is run except you, and so you stood up and called for the meeting to be adjourned.

    To decide to shut down the democratic process after you don’t win seems a lot like throwing the toys out of the pram to me.

    Also, let’s be clear about some facts here.
    – Proposal 4 was never an “anti-proposal”, it has been in planning for months, with external facilitators advising the sabbatical team.
    – The ‘jilted boos’ all came from the part of the room where the proposal 3 supporters were sitting. I can’t say for sure that everyone who booed was on that side, but it sounded like it from where I was sitting. Lets not forget the moment when a member of the Gender&Feminism society objected to people being booed, and was met with an immense round of boos. Classy.
    – “a fraction of the people it concerns,”. It’s a General Meeting. There’s no room in London that could hold all ~40,000 students eligible to vote;
    any proposal is going to be voted on by a tiny fraction.

    And, finally, not a fact, just an opinion: expecting UCL to competently run services which the Women’s Officer currently provides is bloody naivety. It’s UCL. By-and-large, they’re interested in you as a walking purse from which to grab as much money as possible every year.

    • Avatar
      get it over wit
      December 18, 2014 / 3:18 am

      Charlie Hayton, of the Cheese Grater. You do spew some vile cheese and your words do grate, so perhaps you got that part right. Although I fear that seems about it, as far as your reply goes.
      You suggest that “external facilitators” gave any sort of suggestion to increase the number of sabbs. What happened to the Cheese Grater’s famous journalism? Has it died in your hands, Charlie? Have you killed it?
      Very few have been able to see what the “external facilitators” suggested*, but I am amongst them. They suggested getting rid of sabbs, since they were not doing a proper job and they were driving the Union into bankruptcy. I am of the opinion that the way the Union is run is pretty much tantamount to corruption. Any legal expert able to inform me better?
      Secondly, does the Cheese Grater no longer understand humour? “Lets not forget the moment when a member of the Gender&Feminism society objected to people being booed, and was met with an immense round of boos.” The irony was obviously lost on you, Charlie. I imagine that the whooshing sound of a joke flying over your head accompanies you around quite frequently? I haven’t read the Cheese Grater in a while – who has? – but have you sieved and strained everything amusing from those pages as well?
      Finally, your opinion that UCL sees its students as nothing more than “walking purses” is incredibly insulting and quite bizarre. Do you know anything about UCL?
      I demand a paid (£25k per annum is the going rate) Union elected official to IQ test each and every person who represents UCL students in any way.

      *As an aside, I do hope that we’re on the same page and we mean the expensive management consultants that were brought in because the sabbs elected are frequently too moronic to even get along with the other odious Marixsts that are appointed?

  2. Avatar
    December 13, 2014 / 5:02 am

    The comments about David Dahlborn in this piece are stupid and tantamount to bullying.

  3. Avatar
    December 13, 2014 / 7:42 am

    Wow – you just told everyone what women students ‘need’. Well excuse me while a meek women tells you what I do and don’t need. I don’t need a ‘councillor’ who will be paid ‘£25K’ (my medical & psychological friends said it would cost a hell of a lot more – interested to see where you got your numbers from) who will ‘work with the police’. Do you know how crap the police can be in dealing with sexual assault? I would never go to the police and I know many students wouldn’t either.
    What I do need is a fellow peer, someone who I am comfortable talking to. Not a councillor – I don’t need counselling – not the bloody pigs – but someone I can approach!
    How can you say she has minimum training? When EEOO is expected to ‘control the finances’ with no training. The sabbaticals are not meant to be experts, they’re meant to be the student voice & representative.

    • Avatar
      Gabriel Gavin
      December 13, 2014 / 5:59 pm

      Dear Claire;

      At no point do I suggest that I have any insights into what female students ‘want’ or ‘need’. I can’t speak on their behalf and can only better direct the discussion to the many others who have spoken on this in the interest of intersectionality. My only point is that sexual assault and harassment is a rot at the very heart of university culture. It is something that we all ‘need’ desperately to fix as it denigrates every one of us. Regardless of whether you want to take a stance against me or not, you would surely admit that:

      a) the counselling services at UCL are woefully understaffed and many people would benefit from their revitalisation;

      b) there is, as you mentioned, an woeful rate of successful police intervention in cases of harassment, assault and abuse. Part of the reason for this is that people don’t come forward. And why would they when there is an ingrained culture of victim blaming, fear and misunderstanding at every level of the justice system? People who commit these acts ought to be brought to account and face repercussions. At the moment, they all too often do not. It’s our responsibility as members of UCLU to ensure that sufficient guidance and accessible services exist should someone decide that they wish to navigate the criminal justice system. This is no easy task and it is not something that anyone should take lightly.

      I have never suggested scrapping the availability of ‘fellow peers’ available for guidance or even just to sit and talk with. I do, however, feel that this can be achieved, as it is in other universities, by a working group of part time officers under the remit of a full-time officer whose responsibilities are more general. Bringing more people together in these part time roles would increase the diversity and approachability of the service.

      On the question of training, you are absolutely right. Nobody can ever have enough training to deal with issues of this gravity.
      The EEOO, as you say, has minimal training. I’d simply point at the burgeoning deficit and the very real risk of bankruptcy to highlight the fact that a lack of training across the board is not at all a good thing.

      • Avatar
        UCLU Hack
        December 17, 2014 / 4:30 am

        Hi Gabriel,

        Just out of interest, how many “meetings of UCLU” have you attended whilst you’ve been here? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you at union council though please correct me if I am wrong.

  4. Avatar
    December 13, 2014 / 2:35 pm

    I wasn’t there, heard it was frustrating but sounds like it had to be done
    the union doesnt represent anybody anymore…
    jurys out on the financial situation, dont think they’ve made it clear enough

    • Avatar
      December 13, 2014 / 6:41 pm

      It’s really embarrassing watching you mansplain the state of UCLU provision for rape survivors. How do you know whether the UCL counselling service is understaffed? You are very inherently telling women what to do and what service they need. Why don’t you let a woman say it if it’s true – and then get behind that message.

      • Avatar
        sally h
        December 14, 2014 / 10:16 pm

        maybe lets actually talk about the ideas rather than just attacking the people who put them forward, whatever their gender is… comes across as pretty cheap really

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