By Jake Roberts
Anger and disappointment has been stirred among certain parts of Surrey’s student body recently, after it was revealed that changes had been made to the way the Students’ Union’s Executive Committee is run.
Under the changes, motions submitted by students must now be considered by the most relevant Zone within the Union first, who must then approve (by majority vote) the motion for discussion at Exec. Should the motion be rejected by the Zone, fifty signatures must be gathered and presented to the Union in order for the motion to be discussed.
Previously, these procedures were not in place. All motions submitted to Exec were discussed, under the discretion of the Union Chair.
The Executive Committee (known as ‘Exec’) is the Students’ Union’s (SU’s) main decision-making body, described as “the prime committee for political leadership within the Students’ Union” on the Union’s website. Held approximately every two weeks, the committee is open for all students to attend and join the discussion, in order to help decide Union policy. Outside the annual SU elections, Surrey Decides, it is one of the main ways for Surrey students to influence the shape of their Students’ Union.
As Union Chair Sam Bryanton details in his statement to Incite below, the changes were made to prevent potentially ‘irrelevant’ motions from being discussed at Exec. In the last academic year, for example, a handful of motions relating to abolishing the monarchy or supporting the Free Papua Movement were submitted to and discussed at Exec. Some argued that these were not topics Exec should be discussing, as they did not directly relate to Surrey students.
Others, however, found this openness to be a virtue of Exec. Many students felt that by putting up extra hurdles to getting motions on the agenda, the intended open and democratic spirit of Exec was being compromised. Posting on the Exec Facebook event, former Voice Zone and Exec member Anna Ouston wrote: “taking part in these discussions [at Exec] is such a great way for students to engage, and I think taking that away by only having ‘pre approved’ motions discussed ruins that sense of democracy.”
Second year International Tourism Management student James Steel also argued on the page that the changes would “turn away brilliant ideas that would enhance the Union, not damage it”.
On another level, anger also arose over the way the changes were passed (and thus made official policy) within the Union. Rather than being submitted to Exec for discussion, the changes were presented straight to the Board of Trustees, which sits above Exec in the Union hierarchy. Board of Trustee meetings are more closed off affairs than Exec meetings; although they are open, they are advertised to a far smaller extent. Furthermore, the Board of Trustees meeting that the changes were debated and passed at took place on the 11th September, before most students had moved back to Surrey for the beginning of semester.
Incite asked Union Chair Sam Bryanton a series of questions (which can be found here) about his response to such concerns raised by students. Instead, he chose to respond with a statement, which we have reprinted below, in its entirety:
“The Executive Committee exists to lead on political policy, representation and organisation within our Students’ Union. That is to say, it must act on the issues that matter to a collective of over 15,000 students. Ask us, the students, whether housing, timetables, assessments, minority representation and a whole range of other common issues are important. The answer will be a resounding “Yes”. That’s why we elect an Executive Committee, to fight with us on these issues.
Ask us whether our Executive Officers should be discussing abolishing the monarchy, weapons manufacturers or international charity efforts… You’d get a very different answer.
This is the problem we addressed over the summer, the last three topics all came up in an Exec Meeting in February. The NSS shows us that we need to engage on the things that matter to students. We need to change our strategy – more breadth of student voice; a sense that our Executive Committee represents our entire community; a bigger focus on the well-being of this community.
Over the summer I challenged our Sabbatical Officers on what a new strategy for engaging at an executive-level would look like. My initial proposal was nothing like what we see now, what we see now is better, it speaks for the thousands of voices that elected our Sabbatical Officers. It was not always easy, we had disagreements, but we sat down and worked through them.
What we created was a change to how we engage and prioritise; a strategic change. This is why it was dealt with by the Board of Trustees, whose remit concerns the strategic direction of the students Union.
Getting our Union to act on the things that matter to our collective of students is now easier than ever. It takes just one member to approach a zone with a motion to represent the view of our students, if the zone can act, then they will. Should the issue need even more support, then our Executive Committee will act.
This Union is not about showboating, it’s about acting on behalf of thousands of students. As we stand today, it must be more accessible and more accountable than ever, I am driving for these things at a strategic level. We are now finding an embodiment which matches our strategy.
I am proud to chair an Executive Committee which acts on the issues that truly matter to students.”