As the Soton Tab reported yesterday evening, it has become clear that the NUS referendum looks set to be a one-sided race with the news that four Sabbatical Officers will canvass for the ‘Yes To NUS’ campaign team; here we discuss whether such involvement is fair to Southampton’s students…
While the NUS Referendum may be two months away, the campaigning has recently been launched with the creation of ‘No to NUS‘ and ‘Yes to NUS’ facebook pages. The big news, though, is that the latter of these has half of SUSU’s sabbatical officers heavily involved: Sasha Watson, VP Academic Affairs; Chloe Green, VP Welfare & Communities; Shane Murphy, VP Student Engagement and Sam Ling, Union President.
The news has received a ferocious reaction from many students, considering the situation as an unfair abuse of their position. Indeed, given the fact that the Sabbs are recognizable figureheads of the Union, it is likely that students will purely vote for the yes campaign due to the recognisable names and faces campaigning with it. With their elevated positions, their outreach will also be a lot bigger due to the number of contacts within the University. Should they be allowed to use social media to further their cause either? Their social media popularity is, after all, fundamentally due to their elected positions.
I think that it is also likely that many of those involved in student media, student leader positions and JCR will also follow the path set out by their Sabbs; especially as many will have an interest in such roles in the future. Considering most students will have a limited time or effort to get involved in the NUS debate, the referendum looks set to turn out to be nothing more than a popularity contest.
They are elected representatives for the University’s student body; is this positioning on a certain side of the debate a true reflection of those that they claim to represent?
Whether the Sabbs should be allowed to campaign at all is also up for debate. Despite warning signs that they would be allowed to position themselves in a camp, they are no longer students at the University, so why is this allowed? They are elected representatives for the student body; is their positioning on a certain side of the debate a true reflection of those that they claim to represent? Comparisons on a national level – to the 2011 AV referendum – do not hold sway; in that case, those campaigning for yes and those for no were on a essentially equally footing.
Furthermore, that referendum was clearly stated to occur by the coalition government when it took office. None of the Sabbs, however, mentioned any desire to either hold a referendum on the issue or to re-affiliate with NUS. In fact, despite a poor showing in the 2010 referendum, the Sabbs decided alone to hold another referendum at May’s AGM despite limited student support for it. How then are they able to campaign considering none of them put in as that election manifestos? In a similar way that students voted for Nick Clegg over tuition fees in the 2010 general election, the Sabbatical team were voted in despite having big plans that it failed to make clear to the University’s population. In my opinion, students have been duped in a similar way.
The landscape of higher education has changed, as has the structure of both SUSU and the NUSSam LingUnion President
Questions also have to be asked of the motives of the Sabbatical Officers. Firstly, the fact that many of the Sabbs were against joining NUS 2 years ago, but now are set to back it fully requires further discussion. Vague answers of how NUS has “changed” have been given, but any concrete evidence of this has not been forthcoming. Indeed, the Sabbs have made the decision despite the auditors report – which will discuss the financial implications of affiliation – not due to be released until Monday.
Both Shane Murphy and Sasha Watson were also involved in the recent election of NUS president Liam Burns; personal relationships are not something I wish to speculate about, but it is a contentious issue. When I consider their close personal connection with NUS; it is difficult to look past their backing of the reaffliation as a biased backing of a friend rather than an informed opinion that is in the best interests of the University.
The position of David Giliani, VP Communications, as adjudicator is also potentially problematic in that he has far closer ties to members of the yes campaign than the no; whether he can thus act in a fair and unprejudiced way is open to debate. Where, after all, does he stand on the issue?
If the advantages to joining NUS are so clear, after all, then surely the Sabbs could stay out of it?
Overall, while I understand the desire from the named Sabbaticals to support a cause they believe in, to me it begins to make a democratic process look like a dictatorial popularity contest. The idea of a referendum is to allow the students to make an informed and educated decision and give students control of their own Union; yet, I think that with Sabb involvement, this democratic process has been severely undermined. If the advantages to joining NUS are so clear, after all, then surely the Sabbs could stay out of it?
In many ways, I see the decision to be like giving the Yes campaign team a unlimited budget to work with whilst constricting the No campaign team to £100; despite the best efforts of the No campaigners, it is likely they will ever get the message across as easily and widely as the Sabbs. It does seem that the Sabbs are attempting to drag SUSU into the NUS; for what reasons remains unclear.
Let’s be clear; I, like others, had not made my mind up on whether affiliating with NUS was in SUSU’s best interest. I was open to a debate on the facts, advantages and disadvantages in order to make the best informed opinion possible. Yet, with the Yes and No campaigns so immediately skewed to one side – not due to support size, but purely because democratically-elected representatives are abusing their positions of privilege – it is difficult to do this.
All in all, the idea of a referendum is to give the University’s student body a choice to decide its future; but I feel that with one opinion looking to be shoved down the necks of students, it’s difficult to see this as nothing more than an assault by SUSU on the students’ right to democracy and fairness.
Check out the response from VP Academic Affairs Sasha Watson here.