Caitlin Shewell-Cooper, BA English and Swahili
The first UGM (Union General Meeting) of this academic year took place on Thursday 8th of October in the JCR, packed full of students. For those who aren’t familiar with this part of student union democracy, UGMs occur once a month and are organised by the Students’ Union, specifically Co-President for Democracy and Education Hannah Slydel. UGMs are the place where all major decisions regarding the Union are made by the student body, and the SU receives updates from the Co-Presidents and part-time officers on their roles, work and prorities. It’s an essential part of the functioning of the student union and as such it’s vital that as many students as possible attend so that their voices can be heard.
Slydel has this year decided to introduce a ‘guillotine’ on the UGM, cutting the meeting at 90 minutes in length, contrasting with previous UGMs which historically have run to over four hours. The Co-Presidents began by issuing reports, Co-President Activities and Events Zain Dada highlighting the successes of Freshers’ Week and promoting further events within Black History Month. Dada also highlighted a new system for sports societies at SOAS, where students will now pay £15 each to enter sports teams. This revised system comes after difficulties with hefty fines in past years incurred by sports societies who missed fixtures.
Both Slydel and Co-President for Welfare and Campaigns Tom King exclaimed the importance of the anti-course cuts campaign, and emphasised that this issue together with the continuing problem of outsourcing point to an overall problem with governance. King further asserted that he feels Valerie Amos had passed the buck and refused to take responsibility for the furore of the last few weeks, and questioned whether the cuts debacle is connected to Amos’ lack of academic experience. Slydel and King also admitted that no enough was done to combat sexual harassment during Freshers’ Week, commiting themselves to improving the situation by introducing an emergency motion on the subject. King suggested the Students’ Union could employ trained students to be present at parties and events as a point of contact and support for vulnerable students.
Following the reports of the Co-Presidents, part-time officers of the Students’ Union presented their updates. Lizzie Wright (Sports Officer) emphasised her support for inclusivity in the SOAS sporting community. Will Pantin, speaking for himself and Adwoa Darko (fellow Events Officers) pointed to the success of the hip hop karaoke night and stated that he was creating a group of student sound engineers for the JCR, who will receive training and be paid for the position. Anyone interested should contact [email protected]. Working Class Officers Mona Matharu and Saul Jones’ reiterated their manifesto promise to set up a working class students forum, through using student surveys sent out via email. Mature Students Officer Monique Bell focused on her discussions with the ADD (Academic Development Directive) around beginning a mature students workshop, and the increasing of resources to mature students. She pointed to the hight drop out rate of mature students due to other commitments, and vowed to tackle this. Black Officer Alaa Ahmed wished the UGM a happy Black History Month, with the final report coming from Environment Officers Hannah Short and Isobel Annan, who were excited to announce new available water fountains around campus, highlighting their campaign to reduce water bottle waste. They also promoted the nationwide climate march on the 29th of November, encouraging SOASians to get involved.
After explanation of the Co-Presidents’ educational priorities for the year – including alternative forms of assessment, tackling the BME attainment gap, developing transparency in governance, aiding students with visas and guarantor schemes, Decolonising SOAS and Preventing Prevent -the UGM then moved onto the motions.
The first motion discussed was ‘No Cuts to Courses – No Outsourcing – No Confidence in Management’ proposed by Saul Jones. Jones stated that although giving some reassurances about course cuts, management have consistently refused to comply with student wishes in the debate over outsourcing. The motion proposed that the SU had no confidence in senior management, particularly in the methodology used in the curriculum review and would continue to campaign against course cuts and outsourcing. After some debate an amendment was passed to change the wording of ‘senior management’ to ‘executive board’, including Deans of Studies who have had chance to actively challenge the proposals but had not done so. The motion was unanimously passed.
Following this a motion promoting ‘Respect for Shop and Bar Workers’ was brought forward, with student and worker Hanieh Ba outlining some examples of disrespect experienced by shop and bar workers at SOAS, who are all students working part-time alongside their studies. The motion proposed that the student body as a whole recognise that, and to take responsibility for their actions in the shared Students’ Union spaces. This motioned was passed with no amendments and the UGM moved to the third motion, an official show of support for the #LetStudentsUnionize campaign in Pakistan, where Students’ Unions are illegal. The motion resolved that SOAS Student’s Union stand in solidarity with those campaigning to unionise in Pakistan, and condemns the ban on Students’ Unions. This motion was passed.
The next motion concerned ‘Solidarity with Syrian Refugees and the SOAS goes to Calais campaign’; Marta Garcia Aliaga and Maia Birtles explained that ‘solidarity’ is a metaphysical idea but they want to use it and this motion to carry out concrete action to support refugees. Three amendments were attached to this motion; the first stipulating that the motion support all refugees, not just those from Syria, with the second adding ‘and migrants’ to the wording of the motion. It was further amended to confirm that the SU recognises that it is not only refugees who need our support, those fleeing from economic devastation, climate change and more should be free to settle in the UK. This motion passed with no-one speaking against.
Two remaining motions were proposed by Nobuhiko Ono, the first concerning support for the White Poppy Appeal. The union voted to pass this motion, and Ono’s second motion proposed that Students’ Union develop SOAS as a ‘nuclear free zone’ by investigating possible links with companies (such as SERCO) which are connected with the proliferation of nuclear technology, and in the future divesting from such companies. An proposed amendment concerned the new nuclear deal between the US and Iran, asking the Students’ Union to condemn the deal as it would, in th opinion of the proposer, create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Iranian student Hanieh Ba spoke against this amendment which ultimately did not pass, with the motion itself passing unanimously.
An emergency motion put forward by Hannah Slydel stipulating that ‘This Union is Committed to Tackling Sexual Violence’ which was passed unanimously. It noted the many issues with sexual violence and harassment on campuses, and outlined methods of tackling this, such as I <3 Consent workshops as part of the curriculum, Good Night Out training for all staff, and a non-questioning attitude to survivors of sexual violence. When questioned on how some parts of the motion would be implemented, Slydel explained that students at Oxford and Cambridge are automatically enrolled into a consent course (though survivors may opt out) and that she would seek to implement a similar system within SOAS.
Surprisingly, the UGM finished on time.