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