Before I wrote this article, I asked my friends and colleagues how well their Students’ Union represents them. Their answers ranged from a sceptical “sort of” to several firm not-at-alls. After a closer look at the recent Summer of Discontent, I agree with the growing not-at-all faction in the student body. The Union needs to regain my trust.
Simply put, the last few months have been a mess. Unions exist to support their members, both as a collective and as individuals. Our union is in crisis. It must prove that it is ready to represent us.
“Beyond representing its members, the Union must always confront SOAS management to make lasting changes.”
First, serious questions must be asked about transparency. Former SOAS Student Union Co-President, Jess Kumwongpin-Barnes put this issue in the spotlight in September. Since their resignation, Account for This and the “Back to Grassroots” forum on October 4thhave highlighted how inaccessible the Union really is. One of the most pressing questions turns the focus onto Union staff: to whom do they answer? In a union, unelected facilitators should not be able to veto elected representatives’ decisions; union staff must ultimately answer to us, the student body. When unelected managers interfere in the weird world of student politics, every society, campaign and vote is undermined.
On the topic of accountability, Account for This raise very real concerns over the extent to which the Students’ Union can be trusted to keep us informed about the complaints that we make. We need clear-cut, simple-to-read directions which allow us to play an active role in resolving our own grievances. This is especially important in cases of gender-based violence (GBV). According to Account for This, messy policy documents and a “lack of understanding or basic training” within the Union threaten survivors’ confidentiality. As fantastic as our Union has been in educating students about GBV (through the Enough is Enough campaign), the three Union Co-Presidents should respond to the eighteen points made by Account for This in their recent petition. The Students’ Union, of course, should be in a position to support and advise its members.
Secondly, if the Union is in a position to advise, then its members should receive support during disciplinary processes relating to student strike action. Regardless of how you feel about radical student protests, for the Union to team up with SOAS management – as was revealed during the October 4thforum – is to undermine the work of decolonising campaigns, trade union campaigns, in-house campaigns and student campaigns at our university. Beyond representing its members, the Union must always confront SOAS management to enforce lasting changes. Complacency is not an option; the Union should always support good causes on the outside, whether or not it decides to deal with problematic protestors internally.
One final question remains: who can make the changes which will rebuild my faith in the Union? There are two contenders: there’s us, or there are the Co-Presidents who can work with us.
In a democratic union, we all have a responsibility to restore trust. We cannot complain about accountability without moving motions at Union General Meetings (UGMs) or voting in elections. We need to remain level-headed: this is about politics, not personalities.
Giving credit where credit is due, the co-presidents have become increasingly receptive to campaigns like Account for This. Facing so much criticism from their own officers, they have had to respond. And if the facilitators at the top of the Union can prove they really represent us, I am ready to put my confidence in them. If they cannot, it is time to remember that the power of a union lies with its voting membership. Unity is strength, right?
WILLIAM DURRANT, BA HISTORY