Alex Barba, MA International Journalisms
On the 6 February 2019, an email sent out to SOAS students announced the structure of and the details pertaining to a referendum on the proposed reform to the SOAS Students’ Union Trustee Board. The referendum, advanced by SU co-presidents, was almost immediately cancelled following a motion which challenged its validity and called for an emergency UGM. The motion brought up complaints that the referendum broke the SU’s own referendum procedure, and misrepresented the percentage of student representation on the new board.
Imran Jamal, the proposer of the motion and a student at SOAS, said he decided to propose the motion which led to the emergency UGM being called on the 19 February after speaking to members of the SU and other students who were equally mystified by the way in which the referendum was called.
The motion concerns the unconstitutional nature of the referendum, emphasizing both the lack of canvassing prior to it as well as the misleading information provided in the emails sent to the student body on the day the ballot was opened.
“There might have been good intentions but it was badly handled. This reform fundamentally changes the way that the SU functions and moves power away from students”.
The proposer of the motion commented on the surprise referendum saying that: “There might have been good intentions but it was badly handled. This reform fundamentally changes the way that the SU functions and moves power away from students. This is completely unacceptable, the SU’s role is to ensure that student’s welfare and wellbeing are their priority and that those elected are accountable to students. Yes, there is a need for reform leading to greater accountability but the proposed structure did not do that”.
Jamal’s motion emphasised the fact that there has been no real public debate or discussion within SOAS on what the proposed changes would mean for the future of the SU. Schedule 3 of the SU Constitution states that the Students’ Union must provide at least 2 days canvassing before opening up a referendum ballot. In this case, there had been no canvassing period at all. The email sent on the 6th of February announced that the voting would be open the very same day.
A major concern, as emphasized by the proposer of the motion, was that the recommended structure would lead to a severe diminution in student representation on the Trustee Board. The information provided in the email claimed that the new structure would entail 73% student representation. This figure would be correct if one considers co-presidents to be ‘students’. However, some argue that their status as sabbatical officers means that they should not be counted as such, in which case the framework put forward by the SU would, in fact, reduce student representation to 47%.
The petition required 75 signatures for the emergency UGM to be called and nearly 90 people signed it in a matter of three hours. Thus, the SU copresidents had no choice but to call off the referendum and come up with a whole new framework and timeline for its resolution.
SOAS Co-President for Democracy and Education Hau-Yu Tam commented on the oversight: “It was a mistake – a failure to firstly, take proper care over the Referenda rules and secondly, a failure to properly consult students more widely. We were trying to resolve this before Spring Elections opened, in order to move SOAS SU forward to a position where we can finally look at paying our Exec for their labour, as well as have a better structure for students in terms of accountability, efficiency, and transparency”.
After scrapping the referendum, the SU took further action by organizing a Governance Reform Workshop prior to the latest UGM meeting on the 27th of February. The workshop, which was led by Rachel O’Brien, the NUS Disabled Students’ Officer, was aimed at allowing students to better understand the SU’s current Trustees structure, as well as visualise and counter-propose alternative frameworks. This is just the first of many measures which will allow for a school-wide conversation concerning what trajectory the reforms to the Trustee Board structure should follow.
Hau-Yu Tam declared: “We did rush the process, and I’d like to reiterate our apology that this happened. Every year Sabbs look at changing the constitution and SU structures, and I don’t want to erase the work that’s gone on in the past, but little seems to have changed and been retained”.
Following the latest UGM meeting, the anti-referendum motion passed. It was decided that any reform to the SU will happen next year. This is because any changes this year would modify the roles which those in office were expected to perform when they were voted in. Furthermore, there is simply no time for such a broad constitutional change to occur with only two days of term left after the proposed date of the new referendum vote on 18 March 2019.