Ella Linskens, BA Arabic
On the 12th of November, the first participatory budgeting meeting was held in the JCR. The participatory budgeting scheme sets aside £6,000 of the Student Union’s budget to be allocated to student projects as a fulfillment of one of Hannah Slydel’s, Co-President for Democracy and Education, campaign pledges. 6 meetings will be held over the academic year, with £1,000 cap set for budget allocation in each meeting.
Participatory budgeting is one of many tactics in ‘a process of trying to reevaluate and reconsider how the union functions and why it exists,’ Slydel explains. It is a method of allowing students to ‘have flexibility in our SU,’ where funding is given for unique or interesting projects students otherwise wouldn’t be able to realise.
The procedure for participatory budgeting meetings is as follows: review the bids, decide whether they are constitutionally acceptable, hear a presentation on them, hold a discussion on each one, and then vote whether or not to assign funding.
Of the four bids made for this meeting, two of the proposers weren’t present. This, coupled with an incredibly low turn out, points to a lack of student engagement as one of the key issues in decentralizing and democratising union functions.
Considering this could be the smoothest funding process in student’s academic experience, where all is needed is an A4 paper detailing why one needs funding and a 2 minute speech, one would expect high interest and engagement. To try and increase participation, Slydel plans to contact societies and student representatives.
The two bids for which their proposers were present received 950 pounds. 450 pounds was given to the South Asian Diaspora Society to fund their play ‘Tales of 1947’. This is a play first presented in 2013 by SOAS students and deals with themes surrounding the Partition of British-colonised India in 1947.
In the proposal they submitted, it states that the ‘goal is to present a humanised history, one that makes people understand the commonality of suffering.’ During the play’s previous run at SOAS, in March and June 2013, it sold out. The South Asian Diaspora Society is now working on bringing the play back again on the 5th of December.
The other 500 pounds funded student seats on a refugee solidarity convoy to Calais on the 21st of November. This was a one day trip to help move much needed aid supplies from a warehouse in Calais, lacking in man-power to move materials, to the camp. The allocation of participatory budgeting to this project allowed for the trip to be more inclusive and accessible to students regardless of their financial situation. Monique Bell, proposer of the bid, says ‘the new budgeting scheme is a fantastic way to get funds for projects or initiatives. 18 SOAS students have been able to be a part of this convoy who otherwise could not afford to go. It’s an amazing scheme that has given students the opportunity to have a say in how Students’ Union money is spent.’
Students should be aware of restrictions on the scheme before proposing bids. Student Unions are registered as charities and are therefore regulated by the Charities Commission and the 1994 Education Act which sets boundaries on Union activity. The act stipulates that charities can’t give donations to other charities, so whereas the scheme can’t give 60 pounds to an organisation such as CalAid, it can fund a coach of students who wish to volunteer in Calais.
Slydel, when asked if participatory budgeting is a means or an end in itself, said that the scheme is a key to ‘trying to disperse power away from three elected officers and into the hands of students that make up the union.’ This is linked to an upcoming governance review, where the Student Union will be contemplating and reviewing its internal democratic processes.
Not only is there little financial decentralisation but Union General Meetings are also increasingly seen as problematic. Slydel comments that they are governed by an ideology that is ‘part of a liberal democracy that completely erases power relations and existing power structures and pretends that people are equal and pretends that people have the same access to discourse and the same access to space, when they don’t.’
The SU will be looking at alternative ways to make political decisions and set mandate, and participatory budgeting is one tactic within this process. Furthermore, Slydel sees it as ‘part of a desperately needed cultural shift in how people understand the union.’ ‘Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like you’re rendered a service provider, where really a Student’s Union should be run by and in the interests of students,’ says Slydel, commenting that ‘maybe giving students more financial autonomy is one of those ways’ to work in the interests of students.
The next participatory budgeting meeting will be held on the 10th of December in the JCR from 5 to 6:30pm. The deadline for submitting bids to Hannah Slydel ([email protected]) for funding is the 2nd of December.