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Union Council: How do we fix it?

Hello all,

One of my manifesto pledges emphasised the importance and accessibility of Union Council to the Student population. For many years now we have seen very similar problems with Council and as President I don’t think there has been a single Council where many students have left feeling frustrated with process. We have problems with attendance, some Councillors feel it is too boring, others feel it isn’t particularly relevant to them, and others feel it spends too much time on bureaucracy and not enough time on thoughtful debate.

These are all questions I would very much like to address before leaving my term of office. I’d like to see a Council next year that is fundamentally democratic, a Council that is engaging, exciting and relevant to the student body. At the last Union Council, the Sabbaticals were mandated to work with the incoming Sabbaticals on coming up with a proposal for the future Union Council.

So where do we start? Some of you may be wondering, what an earth even is Union Council and its purpose?  That is one of the first problems we find in the Union, that many students cannot relate to it or understand what Council actually is. Click here to find out more about Council in its current form and what the constitution states.

I read what Council currently is and to summate, i believe Council’s role is one of policy creation and scrutiny. Council is the major opportunity for mass Union debate, for policy to be created and for any officers, not just Sabbaticals, to be held to account.

So….what now?

At the previous Union Council, policy was passed that changed the future structure of Union Council to the following:

The membership to be:

(a) Sabbatical Officers

(b) Trustees with Portfolio

(c) Student Leaders

(d) A number of student councillors chosen to reflect the makeup of the student body based on intrinsic characteristics such as mode and level of study.

The extra make up of Student Councillors are yet to be decided and finalised. In order for this group of Councillors to be reflective of the student body, it is important that we analyse the composition of the student body at this University very carefully.

 

What are the key Questions we should be asking ourselves when evaluating Union Council?

 

  • How should we go about creating policy? To see how this is currently done, click here.
  • How should we hold our Sabbaticals and any other offices to account?
  • What should the make-up of Council be? As well as Sabbaticals, Student Leaders and trustees with Portfolio, how should we determine who makes up the other half of the Council?
  • How could we improve Council in general?  Is the room right, timings, how often it is held, how the voting system works, how it is advertised and made accessible, how could we get Councillors to understand their role better?

 

The current Executive team and incoming Sabbaticals would welcome all comments and suggestions to help them with their proposals. We very much see this as an on-going project that will lead into the Summer time.

Please get commenting and give us your thoughts,

Billy

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9 Comments on "Union Council: How do we fix it?"

  1. Billy
    Aaron Bali
    14/04/2011 at 3:35 pm Permalink

    When you mention a ‘group of Councillors to be reflective of the student body’, the following link only really discusses mode of study and gender. There’s very little discussion on disability, geographic location, ethnic background. I think these are all salient viewpoints that we should seek to represent on Council.

    I’m sure you could argue that disabled/minority students would be represented by the new E&D officer, but I think it is important to have actual students who face the issues on Council too. After all, if the blog post on the composition of the student body only considers mode of study, we could argue that those students would be represented by their academic representative. We know this isn’t the case, and indeed, it isn’t the case for students that would fall under the remit of E&D either.

    Furthermore, the concept of a ‘group of Councillors to be reflective of the student body’ seems very abstract and amorphous. Are there any plans to firm this up and put a proper definition into the constitution? I can see this becoming open to abuse/nepotism/the appointment of very arbitrary people if there is no proper way of distinguishing how we’re going to elect this group of Councillors.

    Obviously, this will run into a myriad of issues later, as I’m not sure we could be seen to be putting in certain quotas and denying students the opportunity to sit on council because they don’t fit into a particular group. In fact, there are a number of students on council who (broadly speaking) are from the same kind of background – but they all provide valid and legitimate viewpoints. Perhaps this policy of ‘a group of Councillors to be reflective of the student body’ needs some further practical thought?

  2. Billy
    Mike Fisher
    14/04/2011 at 4:20 pm Permalink

    I haven’t attended many UCs this year – I’ll become more experienced next year – but the main problem with the ones I have attended was that the focus was on following a procedure (which I recognise is important to a certain extent in a formal meeting) but to such a degree that everyone forgot the purpose of why we were there in the first place.

    I’m not going to give specific suggestions for the time being because I’d like to attend more before I make any judgements. But when you do assess UC, please keep in mind the practicalities of everything. Your message here Billy suggests you’re on the right track because it’s open, positive and pragmatic. So please keep it that way. Don’t start getting distracted by “mission values” and buzzwords. UC is there to make the right decisions for students and to make those decisions democratically, carefully and efficiently – that’s it.

    And please don’t get too worried about not engaging every student in the whole university. We need to try and include people as much as possible but we will never get 25,000 caring about UC. The far more important thing is that we represent students. If we make decisions that turn out to be the right ones for 25,000 it doesn’t matter if only 50 have turned up.

  3. Billy
    David McKay
    14/04/2011 at 5:06 pm Permalink

    Firstly, sorting out minutes at the beginning of UC should take minutes, not hours. Shurley each committee could pass their own first and these circulated to UC members beforehand for people to check over? Then confirming the minutes at UC would just be a case of having an opportunity to bring up any issues (which should be few and far between with good minute-taking) – committees I’m on do this and we rarely spend more than a minute doing it (I know SUSU has many more committees, but does every councillors have to approve every committee’s minutes even if they weren’t there?)

    A big issue with the extra student councillors (and all councillors in general) is who normal members would go to if they want something represented. Unlike a parliament or conference councillors don’t have a specific constituency to directly represent, and yer average member doesn’t have or know someone specific to go to if they have something they want to raise. I know they technically can go along to council anyway and present motions or go talk to a sabb, but it’s always going to be more difficult/unlikely that people will do so considering the low understanding of how SUSU bureaucracy works, so making sure students have known and recognisable reps could help here.

    A radical solution would be to use the course rep / school pres system as a means of putting together a more parliament-style UC where every course/school (depending on council size) has a rep there to act as their delegate to the Union & University. Each rep could then organise occassional meetings with their course prior to UCs to present policies to them and present the group’s thoughts/decisions back to UC. I would advocate making reps simply delegates with limited decision-making power, i.e. just relaying the decisions of these meetings back to UC, but I suspect this may be considered too far a step even if it is more democratic. This system would need motions to be presented well before the next UC to work, but then the opinions of many more members could then be consulted before it reaches UC. I think this system may be a step too far in terms of political will at SUSU, but it’s possible and would be radically different.

    Simply selecting councillors to fit in with stats is, although noble, unlikely to work very well in terms of engagement. The challenge in making sure all groups are represented lies in encouraging participation and making access easier to all, whereas heavy-handed positive discrimination may lead to people losing trust in the means by which representatives are found. Using the course rep system and encouraging everyone to consider running for these positions would be a more democratic/meritocratic way of going around it.

  4. Billy
    Allan Steynor
    14/04/2011 at 5:30 pm Permalink

    Have you thought about having two tyoes of sessions. The first is very informal, rid of bureaucracy, and has the main aim of debating proposals, policies, practices, ANYTHING people would like to be addressed within the union. From these sessions formal policies can be written and taken to Union Council for final approval where you can have your speakers for and against and then a vote.

    This type of system would allow students, any students, to involve themselves in a debate (which would have to be structured and controlled but should be less heated as no decisions are being made on the day) of policies that will be taken to UC. It also allows members of UC to take away proposals and work on them, especially with the people who disagree and/or oppose to the policy.

    This does not mean that Council becomes purely a final check for these policies. People will still need to speak for, and people will still get to speak against. It will become about convincing the rest of Union Council to vote yes to your policy because of the value it brings to SUSU.

    The other tedious part of UC was always the reports and approval of minutes. Minutes should be read before hand and this process minimalized. Any issues that need to be brought up should be declared to the chair before UC starts.

    Finally make the reports consolidated and fun, have the individual reports of officers supplied to UC but not presented individually. Maybe the president gives a quick update on the key points of Sabbs work and then you move on. Once again any issues concerning the reports should be made known before the start of UC.

    This is a bit of ramble, and I have skimmed over it but I am actually at work so I cant really be spending anymore time on this so I can rewrite it so that it flows nicely. Also, these are just some thoughts for discussion from an old boy who seems to find himself more wrapped in following the happenings of SUSU nowadays, then when I first left the post just under a year ago.

  5. Billy
    Sasha
    14/04/2011 at 5:54 pm Permalink

    We shouldn’t be capping Council in the way that we set a certain amount of seats for each ‘type’ of person. We should be letting anyone who wants to engage in the Union to be able to, not turning them away because they are a ‘white brown hair undergrad male’.

    Equally, we do need to make sure we are diverse and cater for all opinions – but we cant force a post grad international part time student to come to council if they dont want to. Whatever guidelines to the makeup of Council are first decided – if no one runs for those positions, they need to be made open to anyone and contestable at the first council of the year.

    Also – after the first Council of the year, how about a 3-meeting rule, as per the other Union protocols? If someone decides they want to be involved half way through the year, if they attend a set number of council meetings in a row, they become a part of council (2 meetings and inducted in the 3rd/ 3 meetings and inducted in the 4th?)

    Anyone who’s been to 2 or 3 councils is just as well placed to vote and know the effects of policy decision as anyone else – if not more than some because they will have probably read the minutes!

  6. Billy
    Rob McGough
    14/04/2011 at 6:45 pm Permalink

    Both Aaron and Mike made very good points.

    When I first joined Union Council at the beginning of the year, I found the whole experience a bit intimidating. It was all well and good reading through the various documents on how the Council worked, but it was still overwhelming when Procedural Motions began flying across the room. I eventually got onboard and understood what was going on and now feel confident enough to make my opinions heard across the room, but it still seems a little unnecessary that the first two or three meetings’ worth of content passed me by without fully understanding what was going on. I think Union Council should be accessible and understandable to everyone that walks through the door, whether they are experienced members, new members or even (I would even go as far as especially!) people who don’t have a vote and just want to come along and see what their Union is up to. A lot of time I hear students complaints about not liking the results of a UC vote only to be followed by a response along the lines of ‘you. should have been there to have your say then.’ This, however, would be entirely wasteful given that if they had turn up, they more than likely wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on or how to react in the meeting. Drop the buzzwords and make it comprehensible to any idiot that was to walk through the door. It will be difficult, but its surely worth it?

    To keep it accountable and current to the general student body, why not have a group of students willing to act as evaluators? Compile a list of students who don’t have a vote but still want to be involved and randomly invite a few to come to a meeting, whose role isn’t to have a say on what happens in the room but to comment on what they felt worked in the meeting and what they felt didn’t. Having a fresh pair of eyes in every meeting to comment on their experience of the Council could offer a genuinely useful resource that can be used to help make UC the best it can possibly be.

    Make a tab on the SUSU website for Union Council that anyone can come across and access easily that has the minutes and motions in a comprehensible and engaging format. Whilst the ‘Union notes’ and so on is informative and useful for Councillers, for people glancing at it for the first time it looks like bureaucratic nonense. Maybe make a headline page on either it or the Wessex Scene website (with the Editor’s permission of course) that has a “Previously in UC” and “Coming up in this month’s UC” that sums up in a sentence or two the motions put forward, links to a page in more detail and has space so that people not on Council who want a say can before the motion goes in for a vote. Pages like the Sabb Blog, Wessex Scene and Soton Tab show that people do like having a say if they’re given the chance, so why not take advantage of this?

  7. Billy
    Emily Eldridge
    15/04/2011 at 12:45 pm Permalink

    There have been some very good points raised about minutes and the length of time that ought to be spent on them. I agree it is too long and council does not need to be taken through page by page to check for errors.
    I believe we are a representative body who ought to be open and accountable to students, therefore I think voting should not be anonymous. I realise this could be a controversial suggestion; however I see the main argument against this being councillors may be afraid of upsetting friends or voting with the crowd, two reasons that simply do not seem adequate enough to me. The main reason why this isn’t currently in place is, I suspect, the bureaucracy of having this system in place. Nevertheless, I think it would benefit the council significantly.
    I think the actual website needs a radical design overhaul. The navigation, design and so many other aspects of the site should be changed.
    On a more positive note, I quite like the room (much better than the cube) and we should try to remember the best bit about council is always discussing motions, so if you try to focus your changes around that then it should make it much more enjoyable as well!

  8. Billy
    David Gilani
    24/04/2011 at 2:26 pm Permalink

    With regards to how we should go about changing policy. I don’t think there needs to be much changed to it, but that it just needs to be advertised better.

    At the moment, can any student create a motion for council, or does it have to be a councillor? If the latter, I don’t see why a normal student can’t create a motion.
    Why does it have to be a councillor that seconds the motion?

    A lot of the problem is the website. It’s so hard to find documents explaining how to create a motion… yet it’s not that hard to explain to people how to make them.

    The ‘Union Notes, Union Believes, Union Resolves’ system just needs to be shown a bit less formally, so it makes it easier for the average student to understand it. ‘Facts on the issue, reasons for actions, actions’..?

  9. Billy
    Jess
    26/04/2011 at 10:06 am Permalink

    I agree with Sasha that there should be some sort of procedure in place if people decide they too would like to later become a member of Union Council.

    I understand that anyone may turn up and voice their opinion but I don’t think this holds much value if they can’t actually vote.

    There may be the occassion where people would just turn up to vote in favour of one particular motion and therefore provoke arguments that results may not be representative, so perhaps a system like the one mentioned by Sasha where students have to have turned up for certain amount of previous meetings first to be able to vote would be appropriate?

    As it stands at the moment, I think people only already involved with the Union understand how UC is run, and so run for a position on it if they are not already an automatic member; this creates a bit of a circle and certainly doesn’t help the ‘clique’ argument. I think that allowing a way for students to attend and actively vote would be a step closer to making UC significantly more accessible for students.

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