Thoughts of a Student Union President

By Patrick O’Hare

The internal management of a university, especially at the highest level, is something which very few students or members of staff tend to get particularly close to. Information about who’s publishing what, who has been promoted or downgraded, or who is going out with whom might be known in minute detail around the coffee rooms of a department or unit. Yet decision-making bodies at the top and middle-end tend to be obscured in a mist not of conspiracy, but rather of indifference towards what is perceived, not entirely incorrectly, as bureaucracy. Most university stakeholders are too happily focused on the French essay that is (almost) late, the journal article which requires that one last edit or the latest floral arrangement in St Salvator’s Quad to be concerned about the world of acronymed committees, even if cumulatively these have a great impact over the direction and focus of university life. Lives of university managers and academics (to take one key stakeholder) run at different rhythms. No wonder then that at St Andrews, electronic diaries and Meeting Makers, which make perfect sense in the world of back-to-back coffee-stained réunions, are being resisted by academics who don’t particularly see the need top block-book in hours of solitary confinement in the lab or office.

Becoming president of a Students’ Association thus affords a rare and privileged insight into the running of a university, as a whole and in detail: from its IT policy to its sports strategy, from multi-million pound projects to controversial brothel soaps (don’t ask), punishment to honours, fees to fairly-traded coffee. The role is a complex one which involves wearing many hats, the most important of which being student governor of a university and leader of a Students’ Association – officially separate charities and organisations but bound to their universities by a web of intricate relations. Suddenly, from being a voice on the outside which could denounce the establishment but without representative legitimacy, I could (indeed had to) speak and act on behalf of thousands of students but with a host of new responsibilities. When reflecting on my years’ presidency, a consistent theme which emerges is the pressure that the supposedly ‘independent’ Students’ Association came under as the recipient of essential funding and investment from the University. Another is the extent to which universities can be considered transparent, democratic and accountable bodies. All this in the context of a tumultuous year for Higher Education in Scotland; of reforms, reviews and rising tuition fees.

When I finally moved into the clutter of a hastily cleared student union office on Market Street in July 2011, St Andrews students had already been displaced by seasonal golf tourists and the heady buzz of election night seemed like a distant memory. The Scottish Government’s announcement around the same time that it would be allowing for a maximum of £9,000 tuition fees for Rest-of-UK (RUK) students, and not the £6,000 which had been predicted meant that we wouldn’t be in for a quiet summer. The SNP’s position was a crafty one: allow for universities to charge £9,000 but publicly argue that it should not be necessary to do so. Lower fees, it pontificated, should be the norm. The timing of the announcement, and the timeframe in which the universities would make their decisions, followed a by now familiar pattern of choosing the summer months so as to avoid student mobilisation.

Talk about being thrown in at the deep-end. St Andrews’ first response appeared reasonable: push the decision on fees back to September to allow time for consideration and consultation. How then should we, novice ‘student activist-politicians’ respond ? With most students away, we decided to lobby University Court (i.e. Board of Governors) members who would, after all, be making the final decision on fees. Most were happy enough to meet for a chat and go over the arguments, including members of the Principal’s Office. One sounded a note of caution however: they didn’t want to be lobbied by ‘constituencies’ on court  and refused a meeting. Would said member turn down a meeting with non-student University management on the same grounds ? Would a board member of a large business, to use an analogy-turned-model in higher education, turn down a meeting with other board members to discuss a major decision ? Doubtful, but then this rejection was symptomatic of a common attitude we observed towards student members of Court. Put crudely, we were seen as partisan campaigners, subject to irrational pressures, while management and lay members of court were seen as objective and rational actors, taking decisions with surgical precision which would ensure the best long-term interests of the University . Decisions which would be close to the University mission statement and goals of teaching, learning and research. Decisions such as…buying a paper-mill in a nearby village. But that’s another story.

As we were being humoured by University management on why we thought that a more than fivefold increase in RUK tuition fees was not only unreasonable but also risky, we also attempted to mount a cross-institution campaign to stir opposition to the surprise SNP announcement. This was far from easy given the summer holiday and our position as a geographically peripheral university outside of the National Union of Students (NUS). As the date for the decision on fees drew near, outsiders made easy predictions that St Andrews would naturally opt for the highest possible fee. Yet our discussions with university management, and the fact that Court had been promised three different fee options gave us a glimmer of hope that this would not be a fait accompli and that a real debate might be had. However, instead of being sent the papers for the meeting at least a week before, as was customary, we received nothing until the day before: it soon became clear why. Instead of the range of options that had been promised, we received just one: £9,000, with a supposedly generous bursary package attached. Amongst ourselves and the Rector, there was outrage. Court members had less than a day to consider this proposal, which had been withheld for fear of a leak. On the advice of the Rector, we hurriedly put together a counter-proposal of a lower fee. Whilst we remained clear that we would not vote for any increase, we thought a lower fee proposal might tempt more moderate Court members. Management nervousness was evident in the last-minute change of venue after we had announced a demonstration in front of the meeting room. Outside of term time, we had expected few to attend. As it turned out, those Court members not elected by students voted overwhelmingly for £9,000 fees, assuring us that they had little choice. One lay member who was absent  and whose job, we remember, should be to examine management decisions, wrote that they had never disagreed with the Principal in all their days on Court, so would be voting with the dominant proposal. So much for scrutiny.

It is worth dwelling on the importance of this defeat, both at St Andrews and throughout Scotland. Sure, responsibility for the increase should be shared principally by the Scottish Government, which had removed funding from RUK students and opened the floodgates for fee increases, and the university courts which opted for the higher fees. Yet the student movement and past student leadership should also hold our hands up and say that we did not put up enough of a fight. The increase that RUK students faced was beyond anything our colleagues in Europe or further afield have encountered. Fees in England were being increased from £3,000-£9,000, in Scotland from £1,800- £9,000 : singly the biggest year on year increase in the Western world. France, Spain, Italy:  nowhere have fees increased so substantially. In Quebec, a proposed 75% increase over five years led to the Maple Spring, the largest student protests in the world at that time. There, weekly demonstrations, strikes, occupations and a link to the labour movement contrived to bring down a government and score an impressive victory. In Chile, hundreds of thousands of students had brought the country to a standstill; in Egypt students had dared to stand against a dictator, and won. In Scotland, home of the great tradition of the ‘democratic intellect’, perhaps the biggest single fee increase in our history and…barely a whimper. True, we conserved free education for Scots and EU students but at the cost of sacrificing what at some universities amounted to a third of the student body.

At St Andrews, it was saddening to see how University Court members felt it was their obligation to maximize the University’s income (even if this might be used for education and research) at the expense of the RUK student body. It was even sadder to observe that many academics also seemed to feel the same. In the wake of the RUK fee increase, I tabled the matter as an item of discussion at the Academic Council, the operating body of the University Senate which has responsibility over academic matters. Although the decision had already been taken and was, in any case, not within the remit of the council, I thought that this group of academics might be of a mood to express outrage at the injustice of it all. The academic councils of other universities were seen as defenders of state-funded education and the humanities. Several down in England had approved no-confidence motions in David Willets and his education policies. Surely our academics would have something to say about these shenanigans? But the announced topic was met only with blank stares: not a single opinion was raised. “Moving on then” said the Principal, chairing the meeting as I looked on, incredulous.

By now, our opposition to fees and other outspoken positions meant that we were being increasingly side-lined by the Principal. One-on-one meetings were cancelled and instead we had (productive) meetings with other members of the Principal’s Office. The Principal, meanwhile, was involved in setting up what during its brief existence was known as the “Principal’s Student Advisory Group” or PSAG. Ostensibly the brainchild of a Swedish final-year student, this venture brought together a group of students handpicked by said Swede and the Principal. The students were unelected, and did not represent a wide range of the student body (fashion groups were particularly over-represented). With meetings between the Principal and the Association suspended, the existence of such a group undermined the Association and with it, student democracy. Instructions given to those invited (albeit not by the Principal) were to keep the group secret. In the meeting, agendas carried PSAG as a header and matters were discussed such as what to do with the University’s newly acquired paper-mill (at the time, the idea was for it to host one of the largest student fashion shows[GL1] ). I thought the matter worthy of being brought up at the University’s Governance and Nominations meeting, in the presence of the Principal, the Senior Governor of the University and the external chair. Instead of a reasonable response or discussion, I was instead thunderously shouted down. Naturally, no note of the incident appeared in the official minutes of the meeting.

I say naturally because we soon became accustomed to minutes which did not adequately represent the contents of meetings. Important comments would be left out; record of student dissent would be minimal or general assent would be assumed if no comments were made. In a Court meeting at which the issue of NUS membership was discussed, unhappiness was recorded in the minutes at how students had not been consulted about the impending referendum. This would have been bizarre, given that the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), the body elected to represent the views of students  and to take certain decisions on their behalf, had voted unanimously to call the referendum, which would put the issue to the student body as a whole. This particular ‘slip’ was corrected but instead of blatant mistruths, what we usually encountered in official minutes were slight omissions, lack of detail, unattributed contributions and unnamed decision makers. An example: asked to debate the Scottish Governments’ University Governance Review findings, only one member of the academic council chose to respond, criticising the proposals. No-one else either agreed or disagreed openly, but the single opinion was then reported in the minutes as that of the large council as a whole. I often wondered why the minutes were so unsatisfactory: did the University secretary really have an agenda? In fact, insiders told us that minutes were passed around senior University figures before being approved, then sent around other committee members like ourselves who rarely made amendments. It is almost as though the minutes, which the University are obliged to publish under Freedom of Information (FOI) regulations, are designed so as not to capture how, when and by whom important University decisions are taken. If only we went private or were in America, then we wouldn’t have to comply with those pesky government snoopers. How were we expected to compete with our international rivals if we had to let Joe Public know what was being said behind closed doors?

As student sabbaticals, we were constantly suspected of leaking or having the potential to leak ‘confidential’ University information. In the world of University.Inc, the working definition of a leak seems to be the act of informing the constituency who voted you in about a decision which is about to be taken and asking their opinion on it. This is known in more democratic circles as ‘consultation’. I didn’t even go this far when the University’s landmark Ethical Investment (EI) policy came up for review. Aware of the sensitivities of Court members, I merely announced vaguely that the policy was ‘under threat’, contacting students and staff and asking them to show the University how important this policy was for them. It took a seven-year campaign to persuade the University to draw up a portfolio of responsible investment but of course, years later, awareness and activism had decreased as this was thought to be a battle won. Instead, a failure to meet ambitious targets and an (unsubstantiated) suspicion amongst senior figures that EI was putting off potential donors meant that the policy was under threat of a substantial overhaul. Would staff and students be bothered about this? Perhaps in the meantime they had all become hard-headed economists wanting to maximize University buck regardless of the social and environmental costs? How to know, except by putting the issue out to consultation? The problem is that the University, like many large bodies, seems to prefer consultation after the real decisions have already been taken and thus my innocuous ‘Defend Ethical Investment Campaign’ had me grilled before senior management for borderline whistle-blowing. Luckily, improved performance meant that the policy was saved, for now.

In theory, the Students’ Association should have been free to say and do as they pleased but instead the University excercised a kind of informal censorship : we were free to do and say as we pleased but only at the risk of losing millions of pounds worth of investment, our building and the yearly grant which funded most of our activities. An awkward autonomy indeed. One of the moments of most severe pressure, which by no means only came from the University, was over the decision to call a referendum on whether the Association should join the National Union of Students (NUS). As was recognised at almost every level, things had been done by the book. The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) was the appropriate body to call a referendum and it had done so unanimously. It was bound to give at least one week’s notice: it had given four. A referendum on the NUS should have been called every few years: it had been over ten years since St Andrews’ last one. The Union had assured the University that it wouldn’t be asking for any additional funds to cover the c. £20,000 membership fee. Over 95% of universities in the UK were affiliated with the NUS, including Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Sure, the timescale for the referendum was tight, but it was achievable. Why would the University want to weigh in, either one way or the other? Surely it had more important things to be worried about, such as the success of its 600th anniversary campaign? One would have thought so. But instead, the fact that the Students’ Association board hadn’t been consulted prior to the decision to call a referendum (constitutionally it didn’t have to be but it would have been ‘good form’) was used as an excuse to probe governance of the Association. Other scandalous malpractices were uncovered in the process, such as the fact that (shock horror!) the finance committee of the Association was chaired not by an external or lay member of the board but by a student, the President of the Students’ Association no less!

Given the scrutiny that Association governance came under at the end of our term in office, one would have expected the University’s own governance procedures to have been unquestionable. Yet at an Association meeting on NUS membership, a University representative thought it was perfectly acceptable governance to threaten to resign if they did not get their own way. More generally, although junior members of staff are subject to consistent checks and evaluations, the same cannot necessarily be said at the top. During my last few weeks, I received an email, out of the blue, from the University Governance and Nominations (G&N) Committee, informing committee members that a most senior member of the University, was half-way through their term in office and asking us, as per Court’s previous instructions, to made a recommendation on whether or not they should continue for the rest of their term. That’s right, the confirmation of a senior university figure in their position was being presented as a rubber-stamping exercise to be done by email. Independent of the performance of the said individual, surely this, of all positions and like other Court appointments and re-appointments should have been discussed at length by the Governance Committee? My objection, by this stage rather tired and predictable, was duly noted and overuled by a majority of unelected committee members. At least this time it was minuted.

It has not been my purpose in this article to present a wholly negative view of governance at the University of St Andrews, or of my year as Association President. I would say that I enjoyed excellent relations with University staff and am proud of many initiatives which we carried out, from welfare to workplace representation, from international exchanges to linking up with local colleges. Yet here I was asked to give an account of some of the experience of the University bureaucracy, as someone who had come into that position fresh, washout previous experience, and this inevitably involves giving an account of the stresses and pressures that this involved and the particular issues which arose in the course of the year. It is my firm belief that University meetings should be open to the public or at the very least to the University community and that what takes place within them should be common knowledge. In would be a fitting tribute to the University of St Andrews on its 600th anniversary for it to become a more democratic institution.

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