Turning SUSU Upside Down

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On Thursday 13th May 2010 the Southampton University Students’ Union (SUSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) took place.

An opportunity for students to put forward motions that they think will help change the University, many planning the proposals for months. However many students were left angry and disillusioned after the event ‘descended into a complete farce’. In the wake of the AGM, the Wessex Scene look at what went wrong and ask whether next years sabbatical team need to turn the Union upside down.

Originally set to start at midday, proceedings were delayed by 45 minutes as the 250-person quorum required, as stated in the constitution, was not immediately reached. With the room already showing mild signs of impatience the sabbatical officers delivered reports of their year in office, before the proposed motions were heard. Student and ex-Union Council member Terry Robinson highlights just one of the many issues which arose, explaining that the ‘advertising wasn’t effective or targeted enough’. The Union has responded, saying that they did distribute flyers and used Twitter and Facebook to communicate, but explained they were not allowed to send a direct email to all students.

Several other criticisms were levied about the AGM during the meeting as it developed into what has been described as a ‘rowdy circus’. With eleven motions proposed, only six were heard due to time limitations, which left many students who had spent three hours waiting to support a motion angry and frustrated. One such student agreed, explaining that ‘the AGM started off promising, but quickly descended into pointless discussion. Democracy was undermined today by political rambling’. Union representatives have sympathised with these frustrations and have accepted that a revision of the antiquated methods of debate currently employed is necessary.

By the time the sabbatical officers had read their end of year reports, there was little time left to hear the eleven motions that had been proposed. Those that were not heard were carried over to an Emergency General Meeting (EGM) arranged for Monday 17th May. However, after again not reaching quorum, the EGM was converted into a Union Council meeting, wherein only elected council members were allowed to vote. After it was announced that quorum had not been reached, many who were rendered unable to vote left, indicating that the relevant constitution and the way in which future AGMs are organised need to be addressed. A motion was passed which consequently allowed all those in attendance the right to be involved in the discussions, although those who had proposed a motion but do not sit on Union Council were denied an opportunity to vote for their own cause. Commenting on the procedures, Union President Steve O’Reilly said that ‘we are just going on the constitution as it stood before motion one’, and this is ‘us playing by the rules’. However for those students who had waited a whole academic year to be given their only guaranteed opportunity to propose a motion, this is not satisfactory. Peter Apps, who proposed motions about course and warden cuts, explains that, ‘I’m annoyed that I took the time out of exam preparation to draft a motion and attend council. I feel they are both matters that the wider student population deserves to vote on and therefore it would have been better for them to be raised at the AGM than at Union Council.’

There was further bemusement at how the votes were counted. Attendees were given a red wristband, and told to raise their hands to support or oppose a motion. This made the private process of voting a public matter, and with 250 voters present, there is no guarantee that those raised hands were counted correctly. One of the tellers discounts this notion, explaining that ‘each person had a section’ to count. However due to the block seating arrangements and the tellers counting predominantly from the aisles, a miscalculation could easily have been made. Again, SUSU have promised to re-consider the methods of voting currently used for future meetings, but have said there are many problems, particularly the time it would take to count a paper ballot and the money it would cost to pay for enough ‘blippers’ for every attendee.

A facebook group has been created for students to give their comments on the SUSU AGM. Dave McKay presents a summary on the facebook wall: ‘The fact that motions raised by union members were not heard due to matters which should have been (and have already been discussed) in Union Council is inherently unfair to members who aren’t part of the council. Most of the time was spent dealing with motions arising from disagreements within union council that had not been properly challenged within the council meetings (motions that had passed then but were being challenged now), resulting in normal members losing their own voice in the only open voting meeting of the year. When I protested against the University two years ago, fighting for the student voice not to be silenced by the University, I didn’t realise we’d not be able to use our voice properly in our own Union a couple of years later’

Two letters of criticism were read aloud to those at the EGM, the first, written by Aaron Bali, complains about many of the issues aforementioned based on the flaws of the AGM. The second letter of correspondence from Emma Bacon to the Council implied disaffection with the work of the current Sabbatical team, and suggested that the 2008-2009 Sabbatical team were more effective and hardworking. The Union Sabbatical team are aware of the issues, but with only a few weeks left in there tenure, it is likely that next years sabbatical team will have to find a way to deal with student disillusionment.

Visit: www.wessexblog.com to comment and vote in our poll asking whether you feel the sabbatical team next year need to turn the Union upside down.

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