My achievements this year!

I was asked for the Guild to compile a quick list of my achievements this year. So I thought I might as well publish them here :-)

1. Ethics and Environment

  • Education for Sustainable Development: I won the Green Impact Excellence Award for my efforts at getting a commitment from the University towards integrating Education for Sustainable Development into its curriculum. I obtained buy-in from a number of academics and the PVC Education through a workshop in which the Higher Education Academy lead for ESD, Simon Kemp, came and delivered a presentation on the topic. I also delivered a presentation on the topic to gain buy-in from students. Moreover, the University has now added a commitment to ESD into its Environmental Policy. Myself, the VPDR elect, and the PVC Education have put together an ESD audit, which the University is going to undertake in mid-June in order to establish where ESD exists already in its academic disciplines, and where it is missing and can be increased. By the academic year 2014-15 there should be a number of ESD modules, lectures and projects on ESD at the very least in the University’s curriculum.
  • The Ethical, Environmental and Procurement Policy: In conjunction with the Ethical and Environmental Officer, I put together a new policy, which has now been taken through the Guild’s democratic structures and the trustee board, and is now a working document of the Guild.  It is a unified and effective Sustainability document which all Guild departments now have to follow. The aim is to solidify the Guild’s commitment towards ethics and environmental sustainability.
  •  £1000 Environmental Pot: After winning £1k per year from the NUS by demonstrating our cooperation with the University on environmental issues, I have created an Environmental Pot from the money, which is renewed every year. This is a pot which any student can apply to in order to facilitate any environmental projects.
  •  Workers’ Rights Consortium: I can’t take too much credit, as most of the hard work was done by the EEO and People and Planet activists, but I certainly contributed towards convincing the University to sign up to the Workers’ Rights Consortium.  The WRC is an independent monitoring body which ensures that workers are treated fairly in the garment industry in the global South. People and Planet had previously been lobbying the University unsuccessfully for two years to sign up to the WRC to ensure that its garment suppliers come from ethical sources.

A couple partial E&E achievements:

  • Vegetable growing and vegetable delivery box scheme, and vegetarian food van: This is based on money from the NUS’ Student Green Fund, and our access to this funding is still pending approval. Myself and the VPDR elect have obtained buy-in from the University for sustainable student run allotments and a sustainable veg box and food cooperative delivery scheme, and have put together the application for £300,000 from the NUS.
  • Bin Veolia: The campaign to “bin Veolia” on campus has been as yet unsuccessful, largely because of the difficult issue that Veolia appears to offer more tailored and effective environmental services to the University of Birmingham than other providers around for the time being. However, the first steps in a positive direction have been made, and the University has sent a letter to its Veolia suppliers expressing its condemnation of Veolia’s complicity in human rights abuses in Palestine. Also, the Guild has agreed to exclude Veolia from it’s future tendering for contracts.

2.  Democracy

  • Guild Council more fairly representational: In conjunction with the Social Policy Guild Councillor, I have delivered quite a major shake-up in the shape of Guild Council. Due to the disproportional representation of different sets of students, according to what school they were in, one Guild Councillor has been added for each of the five schools with the highest number of students. Moreover, in order to provide greater representation to underrepresented groups, five open place Council seats have been created for each of these three groups: LGBTQ , Disabled, and BME (Black and Minority Ethnic). Moreover, one further International Students’ place and one further Women’s place has been created. Furthermore, Guild staff have been given two Guild Council positions in recognition of the fact that this group are especially affected by many of the Guild’s decisions and should thus have some representation.
  • Greater ease calling referendums: Greater access to direct democracy via lowered thresholds for initiating referenda via petitions of membership – 1.5% of the student body (around 500 students) – down from 5% (around 1500 students).
  • Reprimands and Censures: Whereas previously there was only one type of sanction for under-performing/mis-behaving Guild Officers via democratic processes, now there are two, corresponding to two different levels of severity. Furthermore, whereas censures were previously meaningless, now three censures (or nine reprimands) now trigger a vote of no confidence – meaning that Guild Councillors now can hold their officers successfully to account as their punishments have some teeth.
  • Democracy and Engagement Committee: I created, and now chair, this committee, and, after its first six months of existence, it has proved to be an extremely successful committee, and useful to Guild democracy. It is made up of a wide variety of students and democratic representatives to try and capture the diversity of the campus. The Committee is designed to be a body for reviewing the Guild’s democratic structures and methods of political engagement with students, and making recommendations to Guild Council – a number of which have been proposed to Guild Council this year.
  • Liberation training: I have, with the help of the four Liberation Associations, put together a “liberation training” session for future Sabbatical Officers, Guild Councillors, and RAs. This is an interactive session designed to be appealing to all; is sufficiently comprehensive so that it may be deliverable by anybody; and is based on a large amount of research into the structural realities of liberation groups.
  • Tracking Guild Council motions: The progress of motions to now be tracked on the Guild website, so students can see the direct effects of policy they pass.
  • Institutionalised periodic meetings between the University Executive Board and Sabbs: The University Executive Board recently agreed to have a meeting with the Sabbs for the first time in several years – a result of a number of factors which led the Sabbs to be discontented with the actions of UEB.  The university agreed to meet the Sabbs after pressure was applied via protests on open days. In the meeting, I gained a commitment from the UEB to hold similar meetings at least five times a year. This can provide the space for future negotiation, consultation, and dialogue with the UEB, which have until now showed an unwillingness to address the concerns of the Sabb team as a whole.
  • MoU report: Research conducted and report written on the Guild’s Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Birmingham. The conclusions of this report show how much control the University of Birmingham has over the Guild’s constitution relative to other universities over their Students’ Unions. This body of research will provide the evidence base for future negotiations with the University, which will hopefully result in the Guild gaining more autonomy in its bye-laws (all changes currently have to all be approved by the University Council – a process which happens once a year, which delays students’ initiatives).
  • Numerous election procedures reforms: Many completed off the back of recommendations by candidates running in last year’s elections, e.g. election period shortened by two days in order to make them more accessible; e.g. 2, for representatives which only represent certain categories of students (e.g. women, international students, etc.) to have statements on the election portal that they should only be voted for by those who self-define into those categories.
  • General Meeting: Although after the whole proxy scandal I took a back seat with relation to the General Meeting, I was heavily involved earlier in the year in the legal and logistical preparation for the meeting, as well as ensuring it happened in the first place by negotiating with and obtaining a commitment from the trustee board. I attended several meetings between the Trustee Board and the Reclaim the Guild Campaign, and helped work out some successful proposals to be brought to a General Meeting. I was involved in conversations with the Guild’s lawyers about the processes involved in a General Meeting under company law, and with regards to changing the Articles of Association in the correct way to correspond with the wishes of the General Meeting.

3. Entertainments

  • Ceilidhs: I put on several Ceilidhs, which were a riotous success. A Ceilidh is a type of traditional folk dancing; I organised these as part of my desire to have a wider variety of events at the Guild to cater for the diverse needs of a diverse student body. They were great, non-alcoholic, events that were accessible to all types of students, and were a raving success. I hope the future VPDR and other officers will continue to put them on.
  • Entertainments Committee: I have failed to get the committee particularly active this year, but I was responsible for establishing it, and hopefully the next VPDR will turn it into a more active and influential committee. The committee is responsible for gaining students’ input into the events the Guild offers, and to ensure there is a variety of activities that appeal to all types of students.

4. Miscellaneous

  • Community Organising training for Sabbs: I have arranged for training in “community organising” to be delivered to Sabbatical Officers as part of their training programme by Citizens UK – a civil society organisation. This should help them substantially in their various campaigns.
  • Funding secured for various things: £2k additional funding available for Guild Officer Campaigns every year; £2k ring-fenced for Black History Month every year; and £2k top-sliced for automatic allocation to Liberation Associations every year.
  • Free Women’s Self-Defence Classes: First four sessions held in summer term; very successful and very positive reviews. Pending the Womens’ Association’s support to include these classes in the Community Warden’s SLA for public safety, these classes will continue to be offered for free permanently to women students from next year.
  • Drink Aware posters: A series of Drink Aware posters will appear regularly around the Guild following incidents of alleged drink spiking earlier last term. Was helped in this substantially by the Womens’ Officer elect.
  • Subway Halal sandwiches: As part of my promise to increase the diversity of food available on campus, the Subway manager agreed to do a 30 day trial period of selling Halal sandwiches. This trial period was to test demand for Halal products and to see whether stocking Halal is commercially viable. This trial was successful, and Subway now sells Halal sandwiches and services the Muslim Community on campus.
  • NUS and TUC demonstrations: I was the main Sabb organiser for getting students down to these two demonstrations in 2012. This involved booking coaches, filling out risk assessments, making travel arrangements, liaising with other campus unions, advertising the event, selling tickets, and stewarding the coaches on the day. They was also a success – we had good number of students down there on the day, and the day as a whole I feel inspired many of those students to get involved in student politics and defending education.
  • Cross-union meetings: Myself and the VPE arranged monthly meetings with representatives from the other unions on campus, to talk about issues that faced students and staff members in common. These have been useful in finding common ground between relevant parties, in terms of joint concerns, and areas where reciprocal help is beneficial.
  • Bryn Gough room: Changed the name of the Basement Meeting Room out of respect for an outstanding student, activist, Guild Councillor, debater, and friend of many.

 

 

 

 

 

Cleared of All Charges!

Following the completion of the investigation into me regarding my behaviour in the supposed “proxygate” scandal, I have been cleared of all charges against me.

While I was confident that there had been no fraud, I appreciate the concern many students had, and the reasons for holding an investigation in the first place (I just wish it had happened sooner). However, what happened is that something which may have looked dubious when taken out of context, was circulated en masse, sensationalised, and exaggerated with incredible speed by social media. As a result, I have had to put up with torrents of abuse from numerous students for my alleged involvement in fraud. I have been tormented by many – the prevailing attitude around here seems to be “guilty until proven innocent.”

I would like to thank those that have been supportive of me all along; you have really helped me get through what was quite a difficult time.

FYI, the reconvened General Meeting will be happening on 4th June. I hope everyone can make it. Third time lucky!

Proxy investigation tomorrow

As the President said in the last Guild Council, I am under investigation for my conduct during the proxy saga, and I thought I should let you all know that I have my first investigation meeting tomorrow. This has already been made public without my permission, against regulations. However, I don’t think doing things behind closed doors is a particularly useful approach anyway. Thus, for the sake of transparency, and in accordance with Guild regulations, I am going to update students publicly on proceedings on this matter from now on

Incompetence and now deceit

I’m sorry for the delay in putting this out I’ve been very busy at the NUS Services conference the past few days. I’m writing this post after hearing about completely false comments made by David Franklin in Guild Council about me and feel the need to set the record straight. I did not resign from Elections Committee and the reason why I didn’t chair it was because David Franklin repeatedly stopped me from doing so, knowingly in violation of the Guild’s Bye-Laws. By claiming the contrary he is being dishonest. I’ll try and tell things chronologically:

On January 29th, after an investigation was launched regarding allegations against me over the General Meeting, I emailed David Franklin (DF) saying that I would withdraw from elections related duties until end of the investigation, which was scheduled to last a maximum of two weeks (and despite what may otherwise have been claimed, DID involve looking for evidence against me personally). Afterwards DF came to my office and told me that due to “procedural reasons” someone else would take my place, which I was led to believe would merely be temporary. I did this voluntarily to show good faith and for the sake of the integrity of the investigation. I have been welcoming a proper investigation from the outset, confident that it would clear my name.

I was told at the time that I wasn’t allowed to make a public response to the allegations because that would jeopardise the investigation, and have continued to be told this despite them admitting they have ‘no evidence’ of me doing anything wrong and no further investigation having since surfaced. This has meant my name has been dragged through the mud for months and I have been getting abuse on an almost daily basis, which I am sick of.

Furthermore DF has violated the Officer Disciplinary Policy (the ODP, passed with 100% in favour last year at Guild Council) by threatening to start a disciplinary against me for two months when the policy says it should be done “as soon as possible after the events complained of (and ideally within ten working days of the occurrence)”. I see no justification for drawing this out so long, which has caused me a great deal of stress.

At no point did I give any verbal or written agreement of resignation. It clearly states in the Bye-Laws that the VPDR is the Chair of Elections Committee and that committee members can only leave by sending a letter of resignation to the President, which I never did as I did not resign and never intended to do so. As such, claiming there was some kind of confusion over my intention is no defence, especially considering what later occurred.

A member was elected from SOG whilst I was not in attendance and I believed there was an understanding that I would return once the investigation was over. Ollie Cosentino (OC) made decisions in my place whilst I waited for the investigation to be completed.

The investigation concluded on the 11th of February, and as predicted no evidence of any wrongdoing was found and no disciplinary action was taken against me. I told DF that I would be returning to the Elections Committee as the investigation was completed. DF then said there was a “new investigation” against me and that I would not be allowed back. After waiting for a few days and receiving no notice of any new investigation, I then enquired again as to why I was being prevented from doing my job. I was repeatedly told by DF that I would hear shortly about a new investigation and at one point I was told I’d hear in the next few days about a new investigation into me.

Meanwhile I was aware that decisions were being made on the Elections Committee, I felt that I should be chairing the committee as stated in the Bye-Laws and I was more qualified to do so*. I had put a lot of work into plans for the elections which was wasted**. On Monday 20th, two days before campaigning begun, I told DF that I would now be acting as chair of the committee as the investigation that I had been threatened with had still not materialised. DF responded that OC was now on the committee and that I would not be allowed to return as I was no longer on it.

Later that day both OC and DF forbade me from attending the Elections Committee meeting which was scheduled for later that afternoon. I argued that what they were doing was unconstitutional. I attended the Elections Committee anyway. DF was not in attendance and OC was acting as Chair, who said I wasn’t on the committee but that he’d let me observe but whether I speak or not would be at his discretion. The EC later decided I can stay as an observer and I was allowed to speak but was not given any voting rights or access to information I would have seen if I was Chair.

I continued to push to be recognised as a committee member, attempts that were repeatedly denied. I then fell ill and took two days off work on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday when I returned, and tried again to assume Chair of the Elections Committee DF told me that there’s too much responsibility for me to take on chairing both EC and catching up with the work I missed whilst ill.

It is shameful that the President could prevent a Sabbatical Officer from carrying out a central part of their role, which they were elected to do. No formal or democratic procedures had been followed to prevent me from doing my job other than the President’s personal opinion trumping the Guild’s Bye-Laws.

DF effectively partially suspended me, which according to the ODP (article 10) can only be done by the Sabbatical Officer Group and after an investigation has begun, and must be reported to the Guild Officer Group and Complaints and Disputes Committee, who may overturn the decision. DF did none of this, acting unilaterally where he has no power to do so and not reporting or explaining his actions to any of the bodies that are meant to hold him to account.

Finally, DF has gone against procedure again and announced a disciplinary investigation into me to Guild Council – a public forum streamed over the internet – when I have yet to be issued any formal notification of this myself. He has claimed that the reason I hadn’t taken up the position of Chair of Elections Committee was due to me saying I ‘didn’t have time’ for it, effectivley accusing me of laziness and unprofessionalism, despite me not being prsnt to defend myself having had to leave Guild Council 45 minutes early. For weeks I insisted time and time again that I be back on the committee only to be refused by David each time (which he had no right to do). At no point did DF give me the option of going back on the committee.

I see once again my reputation has been damaged, with numerous tweets labelling me as ‘lazy’ and accusing me of not doing my job properly. If DF said that my exclusion from the committee was of my own choice, and not imposed by him, he has outrightly lied to Guild Council.

 

 

*Take for example how DF handled the sexism case. Despite him admitting that he was suspicious about what that complaint was about he took it to Elections Committee and got them to impose a sanction on candidates for someone associated with them calling out misogyny after telling us almost nothing about it other than that someone had been negatively campaigning and the complaint was substantive. As Chair DF had far more access to information than any other member of the committee, indeed on many occasions during Elections Committee meetings he left the room to get more information about complaints from Guild staff if he felt he needed more, yet he did not do so this time despite suspected what it was about. Furthermore after passing on very incomplete information to the Returning Officer to make a decision with he imposed a massive sanction on candidates when he admits he knew full well what it was about by this point. He could have sent the Returning Officer another email with the complete information to reconsider yet he did not. He didn’t even try to stop this happening despite having several opportunities. At the very least he was incompetent and didn’t know what he was doing. If I had been Chair rest assured I would have tried much harder to stop women being punished for calling out misogyny.

**For instance I had worked with the DSO in putting together proposals for  additional campaigning help for disabled people, and due to the timings of Guild Council I needed to take it to Elections Committee to make  urgent provisions due to a physically disabled candidate running this year. I sent the papers to the committee, however because I wasn’t able to attend I wasn’t able to explain properly how this scheme would work. As a result, the committee misunderstood the proposals and refused to  implement them. I then later took the proposals back to the committee  when I was allowed to sit on it as an observer – I explained them  properly and we agreed on some procedures that would work. However, by this time it was too late as it was too close to elections and the Guild  was unable to provide the staff support on time, thus this candidate got no additional help and was disadvantaged, and luckily, but only due to the good spirits of other candidates did they receive help.

Some exciting updates!

Hey all,

A few quite exciting developments to update you on:

Education for Sustainable Development – The long-awaited ESD workshop happened this Monday. The workshop was made up of academics and students from various disciplines, as well as University managers. Simon Kemp, ESD lead from the Higher Education Academy, gave a presentation outlining the case for embedding ESD into the University’s curriculum. This was then followed by a discussion among the attendees of the workshop about how they thought ESD could best be incorporated. The suggestions ranged from the creation of new modules open to all students, to more holistic approaches which meant addressing sustainability issues within existing subject areas alongside encouraging learning about sustainability and global citizenship by creating more related volunteering, experience, and career opportunities. Myself and the new VPDR are meeting with the new PVC of Education at the University to establish how we are going to go forward from this. With any luck, it looks like there is a real chance there could be some concrete plans in place before I leave office J

 

Women’s Self-defence – I have organised to have Women’s self-defence classes made available to students next term for free at the Guild. These classes are a crash course in street safety – which deal with both the physical and psychological elements of street harassment. They teach women how to deal with confrontation in a way that diffuses such situations, and will help prevent predatory attacks. Birmingham is a dangerous place, and particularly for women walking alone at night. These classes are particularly important at the moment, with the recent sexual attacks that have taken place in the Selly Oak and Harbourne area. There will be 20 places available on a first-come-first-serve basis: send me a message on facebook or an email if you want a place. For the long term, I am trying to get these classes put on cheaply by the Munrow – hopefully these will be in place by September this year.

UEB meeting – The Sabbatical Officer team, after a long wait, managed to have a meeting with the University Executive Board. This is the first time for several years the UEB agreed to meet with the Sabbatical Officers. Obviously we had a lot of issues to discuss! However, there is only so much you can achieve in an hour and half. But, I had submitted the first paper to the meeting, which was asking for at least 5 meetings between the Sabbs and UEB per year, and for us to start a dialogue with the appropriate PVCs about changing Guild representation within University structures to give us real negotiating influence in the future (rather than us just tokenistically consulted as some kind of “student experience” department, as we are now). With the kind help of the other Sabbs, I managed to get the UEB to agree to this. Hopefully this will be the basis for more direct Guild influence and productive dialogue in the future.

How will the local council cuts affect students in Birmingham?

intro.

The £625million budget cuts being made by Birmingham City Council by 2017 are unprecedented, and are likely to have drastic and irreversible effects on the entire city.

Birmingham’s local council cuts are some of the most severe in the country, despite it being the most deprived city in the UK, with the highest rates of homelessness and unemployment. The cuts equate to £149 per head; double the national average of £74 per head. This is following on from huge and incredibly painful cuts already delivered – since 2010 there have been cuts of £275 million.

Students are not insulated from these cuts by any means. Here are just some of the ways these cuts are going to have a major impact upon students at this university:

Waste services

Street cleaning services are being cut by £540,000 this year. This will mean less litter clearing and dirtier streets. Moreover, the Council is cancelling its free black sacks to save £1million. This is all going to be detrimental to the hygiene and comfort of students. Moreover, “green waste” collection, once free of charge, will be an optional extra. This is going to make being environmentally responsible even more expensive and difficult than it already is.

 

More graduate unemployment and a harder time for the unemployed
These cuts will harm job prospects for students graduating from this university and wishing to live in Birmingham. Given the state of the economy, finding a job is increasingly difficult at the moment, and a large number of students are unemployed for a considerable period of time upon leaving university. These council cuts will exacerbate the situation. Local government is one of the largest graduate employers in the country. Graduates are taken on by the local council in all service areas and can complete professional training while working. Certain areas in particular, which rely heavily on local council funding, including youth work, social work, local NGO positions, graduate training in occupational areas, and even fast-track management schemes, will suffer especially badly. Since 2010, there has already been a 27% reduction in the number of staff hired by the council.

 

Council tax benefit for the unemployed reduced

Not only will finding a job in Birmingham become more difficult, but those who are unlucky enough to be left unemployed and relying on state financial support will now have to pay Council Tax out of their benefits in addition. From April 1st, social security claimants will have to pay 20% of the cost of their Council Tax. For those living in band B and C properties, this will be the equivalent of losing £5.17 a week – quite a significant blow to those already living off only £56/£71 a week (JSA for under/over 25s).

 

Cuts to the Youth Offending Service – Rises in Crime

The Youth Offending Service is set to be cut by £400,000 in the coming year alone. This service operates programmes which are directed towards: tackling offending behaviour before it becomes chronic; working with parents to prevent children re-offending; working with communities to aim to mitigate the conditions which encourage crime in the first place; and working with victims of crime to ensure that their needs are addressed. Moreover, intensive supervision for young people facing custody is being reduced. Selly Oak and other areas frequented by students in Birmingham are dangerous enough as it is. Cutting this service will mean more offenders, more re-offenders, and more crime on the streets!

 

Youth services – WP and crime
There are also cuts happening to the general Youth Service Budget, which will lead to the closing of 40 youth projects (more than 2/3). Such projects are crucial in providing opportunities for disadvantaged young people. They help young people gain knowledge, skills and experience, as well as providing activities rooted in a social education ethos. Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe, and with astoundingly high youth unemployment claimant rates (ranging from 20%, to 50% in some wards). Yet at the same time, these cuts are going to see youth workers laid off, youth centres closed, and more and more young people left without help, support, or social space. These funding cuts will on the one hand severely hinder the University’s Widening Participation agenda, as it will become more difficult for youngsters from deprived backgrounds to access university, particularly prestigious ones like the University of Birmingham. Stripping youth of their opportunities is also likely to have negative ramifications for crime levels (in addition to the cuts to the Youth Offending Service); the city over the coming years is likely to become a more dangerous place for University of Birmingham students to live in.

Students with children or younger siblings

Students with younger siblings or with children will see many of the services they rely upon dismantled or scaled back. Free school travel will be cut by £1 million. This will reduce the service to the statutory minimum, and will be a massive disadvantage particularly to poorer families which live in less accessible parts of Birmingham. In addition to this, £3 million is being cut from Children’s Centres. These offer a number of services, from nursery and day care, to advice and support for parents, to support for children with additional needs, to Ante-natal and post-natal support, to play sessions for children, to training and back-to-work activities and job clubs, and more. There are also £1 million planned cuts to Play and Youth Services over the next two years. Other children and youth related areas being cut include: Children’s Rights and Advocacy; the children’s hospital and social work team; staffing and training in the ‘Position of Trust’ child protection service; and the teenage pregnancy education and prevention service. Furthermore, children over the age of 12 may no longer be admitted to care.

 

Students with children or younger siblings with disabilities or mental health problems

But students with disabled children or young siblings will be particularly badly affected. The Early Years Support Service – a national programme to improve the way that services for young people (aged 0-4 years) with disabilities work together with families – will be cut by £1.3 million. Staffing levels and eligibility criteria in Children’s disability services are also being reduced. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service is being cut by £2.86 million (a one-third reduction) over the next two years, and many highly trained staff are being made redundant. Young people using this service have significant mental health difficulties and have often suffered trauma. There is also a £4.4 million cut (half of the current budget) planned for the coming year in Community and Voluntary Sector (VCS) organisations providing preventative children’s services. This will affect 5,500 children. The services which could be decommissioned include the Barnardos Amazon Project, which provides counselling and support services to young people who have been sexually abused, and the Barnardos and Stepping Stones Arch Projects, which provide important preventative and early intervention services to young people who are starting to experience mental health difficulties.

 

Vulnerable students

Vulnerable students will lose many of their support services. For example many women’s crisis centres are being closed down, meaning that many female students who suffer domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and rape, among other things, may be left without the support they need. In addition, the Supporting People housing scheme, which aims to help vulnerable people improve their quality of life by offering them a stable environment and allowing them to live more independently (including emotional support, counselling and advice; community alarm services and wardens; teaching skills necessary for independent living; etc.) is being cut by £1.9 million. Many students are among this cohort of vulnerable people.

How to find out more

These are just some of the ways the local council cuts are going to affect students. To get involved in resisting these massively damaging measures, or just to learn more about the cuts and their effects locally:

‘Like’ the Slaney Street page on facebook http://www.facebook.com/SlaneyStreet?fref=ts

or ‘Save Birmingham’ http://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-Birmingham/380075378757624

Or search #savebirmingham



 

Explanation of the motions for the General Meeting on 28th January, and why you should vote in favour of all of them


 

Special Resolution 1: Inclusion of a requirement to hold general meeting once a year

Having one General Meeting annually means that once a year all students have the right to turn up and vote on policy, whoever they are, and whether they’ve had any involvement in the Guild before or not. And their decisions will be listened to, because a General Meeting under company law is the highest format for decision-making in the whole organisation – whatever is decided overrides whatever else is decided at other times in the organisation.

Our democratic structures can be quite exclusionary for many students. If you want to vote in Guild Council, you have to be a Guild Councillor; if you want to make major decisions or coordinate large campaigns, you should probably run to be a Guild Officer; if you do manage to influence Guild Council, your motions can be overturned by an un-transparent Trustee Board made up of people you never knew existed; if you want to influence policy via a Guild committee, you have to have a good understanding of the democratic structures already; etc. etc.. Now this is not to say that we should be dismantling our structures of representative democracy – they are crucial in maintaining effective decision-making, accountability, representation, and operation.  However, having an Annual General Meeting means we can inject some direct democracy into the organisation in addition to all this. It’s a no-brainer really.

 

Special Resolution 2: A change to the percentage of students required to call a general meeting

(To clarify, this is to call a General Meeting in addition to those called by the Trustee Board). At the moment the number of students needed to call a General Meeting is 5% of total membership – seeing as we have ~ 28,000 students at this University, this is an incredibly high number. I was a member of the Reclaim the Guild Campaign, which collected over 1500 signatures in order to hold this General Meeting, and that took a large team of people weeks to do. Having such a high level is incredibly onerous because it means that calling a General Meeting is an incredibly difficult task – and would put people off doing so due to the large amounts of effort involved, which would certainly hinder student participation and democracy. Moreover, the length of time required to obtain such a large amount of signatures means that Emergency General Meetings would not be able to serve their primary purpose. It prevents the student body at large being able to respond quickly and effectively to emergency situations in any kind of democratic manner. The proposal therefore is that the amount of students required to call a General Meeting is lowered to 2% of membership.

 

Special Resolution 3: Changes to the composition of the Board of Trustees

The Trustee Board is the highest decision-making authority in the Guild (excluding General Meetings), and has the power to block, overturn, or change any policy that is made lower down in the organisation (e.g. in the democratic forums like Guild Council), as well as to make policy of its own.

At the moment we are one of the few Students Unions in the Russell Group to not have a majority of elected students on our Trustee Board. The proposal seeks to add the three Sabbatical Officers who aren’t currently trustees (God know why on earth they aren’t already) to the Board, along with creating another student Trustee. This would give students a firm majority. This is very important because there have been times in the past when many have felt that the Trustee Board has acted in ways which are not in the best interests of students; and this could foreseeably happen again should the Board remain largely controlled by non-students. While the Trustee Board’s remit is technically legal, financial, and reputational, the boundaries of these terms are blurry, and there are occasions when the Trustee Board does not act in a purely technical way, and its decisions (rightly or wrongly) affect the democratic decisions made by students. As such, it is only right that there is a student majority on the Board to communicate and represent the interests of students to others who might be a little more out of touch.

 

Special Resolution 4: Removal of the position of University Trustee

A senior member of the University currently sits as a Trustee on our Board. This is, again, not the norm in the Russell Group – only two other Students Unions in the group have University Trustees. This is a problem because we are supposed to be an autonomous organisation. Among other things, we exist due to the understanding that what the University does, and the decisions it makes, may not always be in the best interests of students, and we are required at times to take an oppositional stance to the University in the interests of our members. As such, it is contradictory for a senior figure in the University to be a member of our highest decision-making body. While I am levelling no criticism at any individual in particular, it is not impossible to imagine the problems that could arise from the conflict of interest inherent in this scenario.  They are in a position to influence Guild policy massively, three possible ways being: through curbing frank discussion of other Board members;  through veiled threats about “what the University will do” if the Guild did X, Y, or Z; or through simply using their position of power to unduly sway the room in an argument.

The argument often used in response is that Guild Officers sit on a number of University committees, so it is only fair if they sit on ours. However, this is not fair for several reasons. Firstly, no members of the Guild sit on the University Executive Board – the highest decision-making body, but only on lower down committees. Secondly, such an argument completely ignores the fact that the University is the more powerful partner in this relationship. It is they who deliver the education, and their decisions which have a large effect on students’ lives. They are the parent institution which we are trying to influence and mould in students’ interests, not the other way around. If an Executive Board of a company suggested to a trade union that they should have representatives on the committees of the union, they would be laughed at.

Therefore I urge you to vote in favour of the motion to remove the position of University Trustee

 

Special Resolution 5: Change to the procedure for electing Student Trustees

At the moment the student trustees are appointed by an appointments panel, which is a bit like a job interview process.

Firstly, I won’t go into details but there have been real problems with the lack of transparency and fairness in the way this procedure has been conducted in the past, and although these issues have been resolved, it is the secretive and back-room nature of the process which allows these problems to arise in the first place. It is not impossible to imagine new problems arising in a similar vein were the process of selection to remain out of the public eye.

Moreover, any individual trustee is appointed based on the expertise they can bring to the Board, whether it be legal, technological, financial, or whatever. Students are unlikely to be experts in any of these things. Their role is to bring the student perspective to the Board – no one is going to be as in tune with students as students themselves. In order to ensure the students on the Board understand the interests, and are representative, of the student body at large, the only effective means of selecting student trustees must be via popular vote, rather than via their CVs.

 

Special Resolution 6: Administrative amendments to governing documents

These are administrative changes – nothing substantive is changing here.

 

Voting:

The meeting is at 6pm in the Avon Room on the 28th January – and anyone can turn up. If you don’t want to turn up to the meeting, you can nominate a proxy to vote for you, and specify the ways you want to vote. To do so, fill out this form (delete the name of the Chair as default proxy and replace with whoever you want who you know is attending the meeting – you can nominate a Sabbatical Officer if you are unsure of who else to nominate), and hand it in before the 26th of January to Student Voice or the Guild reception:

http://www.guildofstudents.com/main-menu/representation/general-meeting-gm-2013/nominate-a-proxy-voter

As usual, I’m going to use this blog post to comment on a couple of random things in an unsystematic way.

Veolia:

The meetings about the use of Veolia as the campus waste disposal company have continued. To remind everyone briefly – the reason this company is so controversial is due to their complicity in human rights abuses in Palestine. They are a major stakeholder in the Jerusalem Light Railway, which links East Jerusalem to illegal Israeli settlements, as well as several bus services which do the same thing. Moreover these services exclude Palestinians from employment, and generally from even using the services for travel – despite the fact that they go through and between Palestinian areas. They also operate the Tovlan landfill site, which dumps Israeli waste on Palestinian land. All of these things breach UN Conventions. From an ethical standpoint there is thus a basis upon which to exclude Veolia from future contracts with the University. However, there are unfortunately also substantial problems with this. Veolia is such a large multinational corporation that it can use its dominant position in the market to accumulate capital to invest in innovation of services and products (which it then patents and holds the intellectual property rights over) at the expense of other companies) that other public and private bodies cannot afford to do. Thus they have been pretty successful at squashing competition. It also means that a lot of the other environmental services companies out there in fact use waste disposal sites owned by Veolia. The University claims that Veolia is unmatched therefore in terms of what it can offer – a carbon emissions tracker, an anaerobic digestion facility for organic waste which can be used to create gas for energy, a pay-by-weight waste removal service which allows for measurement of waste produced, among other things. Firstly, then, this is a warning about the dangers of allowing companies to become too big – as then they are placed in a hugely powerful position, which they can abuse. But secondly, it raises the question of what we should do here and now – must we choose between human rights and environmental sustainability? I hope not. There are a number of other institutions, including local councils and universities, which have stopped using Veolia recently. The first step should be to find out on what basis and why they did so. Were their decisions based on ethical considerations? Or were they based on competitive tenders? If the former – what importance should be placed on the long term versus the short term? (what impacts would our failure to reduce waste have on the human rights of others, compared with what impacts our continuing support for a company complicit in human rights abuses currently have?). If it is the latter, then how have other companies proved more competitive elsewhere? Is that competitiveness transferable to the context of this university, or are there peculiarities which prevent it from being so? Depending on the answer to these questions, I think the boycott Veolia campaign at the University of Birmingham should tailor its methods accordingly. On the one hand, maybe we should continue to try and get the University to Boycott the company entirely. On the other hand, perhaps we could try and get the University to condemn Veolia publicly for its irresponsible actions, but to keep its contracts with the company? Or to do somewhere in the middle, and offer Veolia an ultimatum based upon a certain timeline for getting rid of its involvement with illegal activities? Or maybe something else? I do not know the answer to these questions, and I don’t think anyone does until we have done more research. Just thought I would highlight some potential issues we may face.

 

 

Israel/Palestine protests:

On a related note… Some Guild Officers, including myself, attended various Palestinian solidarity demonstrations recently, in response to the brutal military attacks by Israel on the impoverished and captive people of the Gaza strip. Our presence on those demonstrations – born out of a belief in universal human rights and an opposition to violence waged on innocent people – has since resulted in us being accused of a whole host of things. Apparently we have no right to express a political opinion, we are incapable of representing students, we don’t deserve our roles as Officers, we are totally corrupt, and we are anti-Semites! I think it is a sad state of affairs when people have to resort to making such ludicrous claims to try and discredit people they disagree with. Disagreement should be aired in a fair and democratic way – if someone has issue with an opinion of someone else, then they should challenge that opinion through logical and rational arguments based upon available evidence. They should not resort to slander in order to try to delegitimise the other side of a debate. Guild Officers are political roles, and have the democratic right, ability and freedom to express political opinions. It is impossible for a person to agree with everyone, when there are people that have diametrically opposed views. But this does not bear any relation on our ability to represent and act on the behalf of students. Disagreeing with someone on an issue does not mean that I hate that person, or that I think that person’s race or identity is any less valid and special than another person’s. There is a huge difference between condemning the policies of a Government of a nation, and condemning the people who live in and make up that nation. The conflation of the two is very dangerous, and historically has been a tool used by authoritarian regimes to delegitimise and crush opposition and to construct a culture of unquestioning loyalty to the reigning power. This is something any democratic-minded person should condemn.

 

Relevant updates:

I have been working on developing the Officer Disciplinary policy so that it includes the many new changes that have taken place through Guild Council. We now have (pending Trustee Board approval on Monday) a working ODP which respects the autonomy of Liberation groups, which details in full the functions of the Complaints and Disputes Committee, which allows for a distinction to be made between political and personal misconduct of Officers and which outlines an appropriate process for each, and which allows Guild Council to apply two different types of standard sanction on Officers – Reprimands and Censures – according to the severity of their misbehaviour.

 

The Democracy and Engagement Committee has finally been approved by University Council, along with all our other Bye-Laws. As such, in the last Guild Council, students were elected to the committee, and the committee can now function properly and officially. And it only took a measly 6 months after Guild Council passing it. Wahay! (sarcasm intended).

 

The Vice Chancellor’s Review of School of Social Policy took place recently, on which I was the token Guild member. I was, as is usual practice at this University, excluded from all discussions of anything related to staffing or research (yet staffing affects teaching provision of students, and we also represent research students).

Why Universities should be publicly funded bodies

This is a bit of a random blog post, but I was inspired to write it after stumbling across my notes from some University legal training I attended recently.

 Universities are strange legal entities. On the one hand they are charities, whose objects are the advancement of education. On the other hand, they are also private companies (the University of Birmingham is a company created by Royal Charter). As they exercise some public functions they are also quasi public bodies.

 Different Universities have different proportions of public and private funding. Oxford and Cambridge for instance are almost entirely privately funded, while the majority of Russell Group Universities are around 50% publicly and 50% privately funded institutions.

 The problems with universities in this country stem from the fact that they are not fully public institutions.

 Their public side means they have some checks on them – e.g. they are regulated and partially funded by HEFCE; they are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, meaning that they have to divulge certain information if it is requested by members of the public, etc.

 While they are funded somewhat by the Government, their status as companies means that they are expected to make their own money.

 Universities make money through a number of means, some of the primary ways being winning research funding, patenting inventions and reaping royalties from intellectual property rights, and through engaging in profitable contracts with the private sector (whether this be through advertising, joint research projects/tailoring research to the needs of the big players within the market) establishing alumni fundraising networks.

 The more money a university makes, the more they can (hypothetically) put towards education. But this means that money becomes prioritised above most or all other considerations, leading to several problems:

 Universities have incentives (and the ability) to try and avoid as many laws as possible which apply to public institutions – as regulations which stipulate minimum standards of fairness tend to mean extra expense (expense which is obviously totally justified), e.g. European procurement law.

 This brings me on to the issue of procurement. This is an interesting case where money saving incentives can lead to backwards practices. If Universities buy goods from sustainable sources, where the workers producing the goods are treated fairly and paid well all along the supply chain, then those goods are inevitably more expensive than those produced under sweat shop conditions using materials extracted as cheaply as possible using unsustainable means. Universities have an incentive in order to remain “competitive” to always ignore external social costs and go for the latter option. (However there has been a massive victory in this regard recently at the University of Birmingham. After three years of campaigning by People and Planet (particularly Matthew Franklin), and some hard work by Alice Swift (EEO), the University have, just a couple of weeks ago, signed up to the Workers’ Rights Consortium http://officerblogs.com/eeo/university-of-birmingham-takes-action-against-sweatshops/).

 Money can become a goal in and of itself, at the expense of education. This appears to have happened with a significant number of institutions, even some of those in the Russell group (cough, cough – naming no names). Typical symptoms include cutting funding to courses which are not as profitable as others. This ignores the value of education as a social good, and treats it as solely an instrument for wealth generation. It will generally create an trend towards teaching as many students (now treated as customers) with as few tutors and lecturers as possible. Staff-ratios will get a lot worse now that a greater proportion of the money comes from fees. Arts and Humanities subjects, due to all the money for these coming from fees, will likely see the worst ratios. Profitable research will also be prioritised above socially useful research – the two may coincide, but they often don’t.

 There is currently a debate in Governmental circles going on as to whether the money coming in from tuition fees counts as private or public money (because in the long term it is private individuals paying for it, but in the short term that money is being loaned out from the Government purse). This decision could have massive implications for where your tuition fees go.

 Anyway, on a related note, make sure you come to the NUS demo (21st November) to fight for a free, fair and publicly funded education system and oppose the marketization of Universities. Tickets are only £5 and come with a free t-shirt – you can buy them here: http://www.guildtickets.co.uk/NUSDemo