An Assault On Democracy? – Sabbs & Their NUS Plans


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 NUS

Sam Ling
Union 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.


Discussion44 Comments

  1. avatar

    The sabbatical officers should of put that they were in favour of joining the NUS in their manifesto’s. If re-joining the NUS is something that SUSU HAS to do in the interests of the student body AND the sabbaticals are so passionate about re-affiliation then it should of been a manifesto promise.

    Anything else is just stinks of manipulation to gerrymander a YES outcome. Liam Burns will be laughing all the way to the bank with SUSU’s affiliation fee as Shane and Sasha sell SUSU’s independent voice down the river for the price of a few pints with the mediocre leader of an increasingly irrelevant National Union.

  2. avatar

    An excellent and very brave article! The points you raise are spot on and this article shows the sabbs the depth of feeling that the student body holds.
    It’s my opinion that the NUS is good for sabbs and not students and the conduct of our elected officers proves this.
    Again, thanks for writing this article and.well done

  3. avatar

    Great article, clearly stating great facts. As you say, if NUS is such a great deal then why do they need to campaign? We’re smart enough to identify that. There is no cap of budget. Worryingly this means the NUS may flood the campaign with staff and money as they did last time round, with the NUS president leading the debate. This is a university decision and only students should be allowed on campus to campaign!

  4. avatar

    Fantastic article. You’ve raised some very good points here which should encourage more people to take a reasoned opinion on the Yes/No debate rather than voting by familiar names, peers, etc.

  5. avatar

    A well written and thought-provoking article that really does make you wonder about the state of student politics within our University. I applaud the courageous writer for investigating those elected by us and the editor of the Wessex Scene for allowing such a discussion to take place!

  6. avatar

    It is really scary that some of our elected Sabbs are so partisan towards saying ‘yes to NUS’.

    I think they should all drop any affiliation to the campaign and remain impartial throughout as a show of goodwill to the students of the university; to show that their main priority is creating an honest, fair debate, not one which they are clearly biased towards from the outset.

    Also it would be nice for them to answer some questions directly about their relationship with the NUS president and what they themselves are getting out of their clear affiliation with him.

    We students should feel legitimately aggrieved about this – in my opinion it is very suspicious and borderline corrupt.

  7. avatar

    Given that there was a very conclusive no vote on this issue less than two years ago, I’m very disappointed that we are being forced through this charade again by an obviously partisan Sabbs team. I would have thought that at a time where budgets are being cut across the university, SUSU would be able to find better things to spend their money on. I guess that if (by some kind of miracle) there is a no vote again this time, we’ll keep having referendums every year or two until the student body gives the ‘correct’ answer.

    David Gilani

    Hey Thomas, I just thought I’d add a bit of context and information to help ease your concerns.

    Firstly, when the referendum occurred in 2010, around 15% of the student population took part in voting… 2 years is a long time at a University, because over 2/3 of those students have left. This means that less than 5% of the students now studying at Southampton have had a chance to discuss this issue. Furthermore, the decision to have a referendum has not been sneaked through. It was brought to the Annual General Meeting in May and passed by students voting for it.

    Finally, as part of this motion about having an NUS Referendum, one part of the motion was that ‘if we do vote to affiliate, then there shall be another referendum within the next 3 years’.



    Sorry David but “less than 5% of the students now studying at Southampton have had a chance to discuss this issue” is trivially false. Many students stay here for more than three years, more people have a chance to discuss the issue than vote and the distribution of votes across class years is I imagine not this simple even to approximation. Taking an impartial position as you are, perhaps you should try and be more accurate with these things.

    David Gilani

    Hey Pedant, allow me to respond to that criticism.

    1) It is true that many students stay here for more than three years. However, it is also true that many students are only at Southampton for one year. I was taking an average figure, which is actually above 66% that have left.

    2) It’s an interesting point that some people will have had a chance to discuss the issue without actually voting… however, I don’t believe that’s an adequate measurable. People can ‘discuss’ the question of NUS affiliation at any time… however, giving them an actual chance to vote is completely separate.

    3) You are also right that the distribution across year classes is not simple… however, in fact there was above average voting by third years compared to first and second years, which actually increases the percentage of students who engaged with the referendum that have now left.

    With this more detailed analysis, it’s more like only 3% of voting students that are still here. I stated the 5% figure to avoid having to delve into massive detail (whilst I still felt it allowed me to make my point well)… I don’t mean to be patronising, but perhaps you should try to not be so quick to judge others on their accuracy.

    Thanks for your thoughts and for reading mine.

    return of the pedant

    “It’s an interesting point that some people will have had a chance to discuss the issue without actually voting… however, I don’t believe that’s an adequate measurable. People can ‘discuss’ the question of NUS affiliation at any time… however, giving them an actual chance to vote is completely separate.”

    Yes, clearly there is a difference between discussing the issue, having a chance to vote and actually voting. In your first comment you mentioned “having a chance to discuss the issue” but actually gave an approximate figure for those who actually voted. In your reply to me you then retreat to “an actual chance to vote” but again quote the figure for who voted rather than who could have voted. Both of these are incorrect and it appears you’re deliberately fudging the issue in a similar way to when George Osborne talks about debt and then gives figures for the deficit instead.

    I really do think you should take care to be precise in the language you use if you are not to undermine yourself.

    David Gilani

    Hmm… yes I suppose you’re right. My apologies.

    But I think we both agree… due to the nature of students being able to discuss this issue at any point – that’s a bit of a useless statistic. So what do we know…?

    …The number of current students who have been able to discuss it and then vote on the issue is less than 30% and, then furthermore, the number of current students who have voted on the issue before is around 3%.

    To return back to the original concern I had with Thomas’ point… the main reason that we’re having a referendum is because at the Annual General Meeting in May, a motion was passed to hold one – it’s just a further point that I agreed with the reasoning behind this motion (i.e. that a lot of students haven’t had a chance to vote on this issue).

    Thanks for your thoughts and for reading mine.

  8. avatar

    Your article asks some very pertinent questions but I feel you should be giving us some context such as “how may unis in England affiliate to NUS” and “how many do not”. If, as I suspect Southampton is one of very few Unis not affiliated to NUS, students should ask themselves why this is.

    I'm not a sheep

    The argument of “lots of other people are so I should be too” is one of the first things free thinking students are taught to question. If NUS doesn’t benefit us, which the Yes campaign have failed so far to disprove, then the main argument for shouldnt be because other people do.
    The arguments above are great and should hopefully inspire a true debate rather then the my mate liam said argument currently being spouted!


    hang on – what campaigning has actually happened??? all ive seen is people talk about the sabbs!

    I'm not a sheep

    There’s been a fair bit on social media about how it will benefit through money etc as the sabbs try and answer critics. It’s telling that the only people really answering questions are sabbs! They’ve also been ‘campaigning’ since it was broken that this referendum was what they wanted to do if re-elected. Take your head out the sand and have a look around.

    The sabbs are mainly the ones being discussed due to the student outrage at how openly biased it all is!

    David Gilani

    Hey ‘I’m not a sheep’, the student outrage is unfounded as the process of the referendum is far from biased… allow me to explain how.

    It’s important to realise that the Sabbaticals who are campaigning made their intentions very clear, months and months ago, that they had their opinions on the NUS and thus were excluded from the decision making process of how this referendum has been organised.

    We have an impartial sub-group of elections committee who have set all the rules and are running the referendum. Sabbaticals who are campaigning have no access to formal channels of SUSU communication (whether it be via social media or the SUSU website). This means that SUSU is in no way biased in this referendum.

    The Sabbaticals who wish to campaign are doing so completely within the rules (it is in fact written in the constitution – in their job role – that they are allowed to campaign on policy and political change at SUSU – in fact they’re encouraged). They have no advantage over any other student in terms of their ability to campaign. They simply wish to advise students on what they THINK is the best decision for Southampton students.

    Thanks for your thoughts and for reading mine.


    David, how can you say the student outrage is unfounded?! The fact that it exists is surely enough to show that many people feel the current rules are not good enough to give a proper democratic process to the student; as a representative of those students, you are essentially dismissing your electorates concerning without so much as a thought.

    Also, if the Sabbaticals made it clear, why was it not mentioned in their manifesto? Maybe cause it wasn’t clear?


    You are asking a valid question, I think.
    NUS is good for some unions, but that doesn’t mean it is good for SUSU.
    Some student unions are small and can’t get good deals for their shops and bars. Some unions don’t even have sabbatical officers to represent them, nor they have a strong staff support system in place.
    And some just can’t be arsed to tackle their own issues and need somebody to do it for them.
    We, however, have a strong, (mostly) democratic union, a well established support system, shop and bars who have a management who is willing to work hard to get good deals and products, and, for crying out loud, we have sabbatical officers that we choose and pay for to represent us and make the union better.
    This is a University that has traditionally been home to great, independent free thinkers who were willing to work harder in order to make the most of the resources we have. That is why we have spent many years outside NUS.
    We simply do not need the NUS.


    point of information – every union has at least a sabbatical, and there are plenty of unions much bigger than SUSU that are in the NUS. and anyway, we havent been in the NUS for years because a tory president forced through a disaffiliation at the union council – not through a referendum or anything like that. talk to other people from other universities and say theyre not free thinking too… what sort of arrogance is that?!

    Luke Goodger

    Have you been to other unions at other unis. They stink, and your political affiliation shines through there with your use of ‘Tory’

    Sasha Watson

    Have you been to Sheffield, Leeds, Exeter, Newcastle, Manchester, Loughborough, Hull, or any of the top Unions in the country? They’re amazing, and where we want to be, but are 5-10 years ahead of us. Some are awful, granted, but we’re not the best by any means!


    Thanks for the information, I am pretty sure I have read about unions without Sabbs, but I may as well be wrong there.
    Some of the points I have raised apply to the bigger unions, if you are giving a reply on my opinion, it would make sense to take my post as a whole and not completely ignore some points.
    Of course other universities have free thinkers, but the question “Should we disaffiliate” is not being asked at all (or is being asked rarely) and people don’t have an opportunity to form an opinion and make an informative choice.

  9. avatar

    Brilliant article. It’s about time students started to question their Sabbatical officers and finally properly hold them to account. I get the feeling the real backlash from the Sabbs (as witnessed in the comments of the Soton Tab article) is because they’re actually being questioned by the students, who they serve, for once.

    I hope the Sabbs, if you’re reading, take into account what a lot of students think of your actions and stand points in this referendum and I hope they’re prepared to not let this go quietly. I want to see students fight this case, not for the idea of No or Yes to NUS, but for democracy and fair representation. A new issue is not whether SUSU should affiliate, it’s now whether the Sabbs, who are paid figureheads of the Union, should be able to express a sheer amount of bias.

    I hope the students on both campaign teams are able to see the utter sham that is going on and work together (regardless of views on NUS) to stop the Sabbatical Officers from cheating their way into swaying opinions.

    Wessex Scene, you’ve got balls publishing this. Well Done.

    David Gilani

    Hey Disappointed, I’m sorry that you’re disappointed. I thought that I’d just add a little comment to help clear up some confusion. I’m glad that you’re questioning whether Sabbaticals should be able to campaign, but I’m not sure that you’re asking the questions in the right place.

    It is not ‘the Sabbs’ who have decided that they are going to be able to campaign in this referendum… it is the constitution of the Union, which writes the job descriptions for Sabbaticals as political officers. A referendum is a form of policy decision and it is the place of Sabbatical officers to argue for or against and, ultimately, carry out the policy of the Union. Individual Sabbaticals might decide that they WILL or WON’T campaign in this referendum, but ultimately, it is the constitution that says that they CAN.

    This has then been clarified by the rules of the subgroup of elections committee who are running this referendum (of which I am deputy returning officer), who have stated that the only limitations on a Sabbatical Officer will be their access to their Sabbatical blogs, twitter feed on the SUSU website and SUSU Facebook pages.

    If you would like to lobby Sabbaticals to personally change their mind on whether they will campaign then you can, but the only way to change whether or not they are ALLOWED to campaign is to change the constitution of SUSU at Union Council. No rules have been broken by their choice to campaign.

    I hope that clarifies the situation 🙂 thank you

  10. avatar

    The thing to point out here is the fact this referendum was put through BY STUDENTS. The sabbs have not gone behind anyones back in putting this referendum through, they put it forward at the largest open forum students have to bring proposals about how to change their union. I would totally agree if this referendum had come about by the Sabbaticals simply affiliated through Trustee Board/Union Council but they have in no way abused their power.

    The SUSU constitution states that Sabbatical officers are allowed to campaign in these forms of elections and I am sure David has explained that the Sabbaticals will not have access to any form of media that a regular student does not have access to when they campaign. If students feel that the constitution needs to be changed and Sabbaticals should not be allowed to campaign in these situations then they can bring this to Union Council – council is open to every student and every student has the opportunity to bring forward a motion. If this is an issue to you I urge you to do this!

    I finish on the point that the Sabbaticals along with the Student Leaders spear head our union, they are meant to be recognisable figures and it is impossible for them not to be when they were elected in to office. People are always going to think that if a majority of Sabbaticals have an opinion that the whole union will have this opinion too…this is entirely untrue. We are all free thinkers, with the rights to make our own decisions. The sabbs are not dictators and never will be. If you disagree with the sabbaticals then you are making an informed decision. I urge you all to truly research the pros and cons of affiliating and make the informed decision yourself. Do not let one or two articles saying that this is being forced upon you sway your decision. There are plenty of opportunities coming up for a discussion to be had and I believe that the route the Sabbs have taken has allowed this to happen.


    I don’t think the article states Sabbaticals are dictators; purely that many will follow them due to their “speahead” status. It is very optimistic to believe otherwise, considering many will just vote on a whim.

  11. avatar

    Hello, I am a sabb from another Union. If this referendum was agreed at the AGM then your sabbs are MANDATED to hold it. Also, the idea that once sabbs become sabbs they stop having their own opinions and right to campaign for them is ridiculous. Sabbs may not be students but they are full members of the Union with the same rights as any other member. It is sabbs’ jobs to campaign and show political leadership in the direction they believe is best for the Union.


    Liverpool Hope are such a poor organisation that they actually ask NOT to be included in the League tables.

    So to be frank Ben Ramsdale, couldn’t care less what your opinion is, you wouldn’t get into Southampton University, your thoughts are as irrelevant as polytechnic education.

    Sam Ling

    Firstly John “no last name”, its the University of Southampton not Southampton University.

    Secondly, although it may be that your just Trolling, but your attitude is exactly what gives students in Russell Group Universities a reputation for being pompous and arrogant.

    I’m reassured that the other 99% of student who I’ve met have a far more modern attitude.

    No last name

    Hey Sam “who has a last name” Ling, I googled it and actually it’s The Russell Group of Universities and I think you met the other 99% of students, not student.

    But then who is the pedant?

    Still think Ben can go and swivel. I don’t care if he’s a BNOC at Liverpool Despair means nothing in this debate.

    Ben Ramsdale

    John, I got 480 UCAS Points (3 As and a B). I was accepted into a Russell group uni. Liverpool Hope actually would be in the top 50 if it chose to be in them and we were never a polytechnic. I was sure you’d want me to help you get these facts straight, mate.


    John, your contemptuous reply to Ben does you no favours. IF you have benefitted from a ‘superior’ education (that is if) you should not be writing in such a tone.


    I bekieve you are right Ben, I don’t see why ‘Sabbs’ should not be able to express their views. I am sure students generally look for guidance and leadership from the said ‘sabbs’.

  12. avatar

    Apologies for chipping in on another Uni’s media, but this news has spread, and as President at a Union currently holding its own referendum I definitely found it intriguing.

    Whilst it appears undemocratic, I have to agree that the Soton sabbs have done nothing wrong; by the letter of their constitution. That said, yes, all sabbs have the right to an opinion, but that doesn’t mean we have to use that right in something as potentially-contentious as an NUS Referendum.

    The Surrey Exec and I have all agreed to remain neutral on the topic. I have my opinion on affiliation, but ultimately, I’m not here to direct Surrey students, the whole point of the referendum is for Surrey students to make a fair, balanced decision. We actively shied away from sabbs promoting a certain viewpoint, because of the potential for it to become a battle of personalities rather than issues (for instance, if I was to campaign a certain way, and another sabb to campaign the opposite).

    Our core aim in this referendum has been to encourage student leadership of campaigns, ensuring that all Surrey students are informed and confident to make the decision, that they feel is best for them. In truth, chances are nothing will change, but I’ll be happy to know that that’s as a result of the student voice, not myself, or anyone else in a more public-facing role, being seen to be “forcing through” my own opinion.

    So in short, whilst sabbs have the right to an opinion, it’s a matter of contention the extent to which they should use that right. Ultimately, I doubt you’ll ever please everyone.


    I love this Dave, very well put. I guess Southampton students are angry because it seems like rather than be encouraged by sabbaticals we are being lead into making the ‘right’ choice. Its very true in saying that you cannot please everyone but I would of thought sabbaticals would try and please the majority rather than themselves.

  13. avatar <This

    Sasha and Liam sitting in a tree… S.Y.C.O.P.H.A.N.T first comes a pint, then comes idol worship, then comes a vote and SUSU loses all it's autonomy.


    A minor point that may be of interest – a few years ago (I think it must have been academic year 08-09), the sabbs at Warwick strongly wanted to leave NUS as they were paying so much to be in it and felt they got very little back. Unfortunately the referendum that year was not quorate (and I don’t know which way it would gone otherwise). Anyway, I think it is interesting to note that as sabbs they felt it was not good. Obviously all unions are different, time has passed, etc.


    Sorry, my post below was not meant to be a reply to you, just a comment!

  14. avatar

    Mature Student, your comment has been removed because it breaches the Staff-Student Protocol which all students are subject to when it comes to Union Staff. If you would like to know more about why your comment has been removed then get in touch

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