LUSU considering online referenda after division appears to widen

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VP (Union Development) Laurence Pullan has announced the Union will continue to look into new forms of engagement and communication, after some students called into question the more traditional methods LUSU have used over the past academic year.

Speaking to SCAN, Pullan said that the Full-Time Officer team intended to look into using digital referenda to consult students directly about issues related to them. “I think if there is quite a hot topic of debate we could send an email to all our students asking them a question that they can vote on,” Pullan said.

The announcement follows a series of high-profile incidents where the direction taken by LUSU has appeared to go against the sentiment of much of the student body. 52 percent of those who responded to a SCAN poll over the Easter break said that they did not feel the decisions taken by LUSU are in Lancaster students’ best interests, while only 10 percent answered “yes, all of the time” and 34 percent answered “yes, some of the time.” Of particular anguish for some students is LUSU’s continued support for the strike action by the University and College Union (UCU), particularly since the announcement of a marking boycott, which at time of writing stands to take place from Tuesday Week 3.

LUSU’s new initiative also comes at a point of contemplation for the Union, after the Annual General Meeting – held on Monday Week 10, Lent term – failed to reach quorum. “The AGM was disappointing because we put in a lot of effort, and put on the agenda motions which had been called for by the student body, from non-officers,” Pullan said.

“There have been people complaining, saying things like ‘poor form, LUSU,’” Pullan continued, pointing to the criticism he and other officers received for the failure to get enough students to attend the meeting. “Well for me personally I don’t agree with that notion, because there is only so much we [the six Full-Time Officers] can do. We don’t have the communication on the grassroots level that other students do.

“And if it is such a big issue, we can put it on the agenda – both metaphorically and physically – but at the end of the day, it’s up to our grassroots college officers and our students to take note and get involved in our democratic processes.”

LUSU’s delegate to the NUS Conference, Charlie Edwards, called into question such processes. “No-one knows what a general meeting is, students are not told about it until it happens, the agendas are pretty dull looking,” Edwards told SCAN, suggesting general meetings themselves were becoming redundant as a forum for the Union.

“I was admonished by a fellow officer for debating the contents of the General Meeting on Facebook, she said ‘just put the details of when and where it is and people will come,’” Edwards continued. “Well, that’s frankly wrong. Engagement in a public forum like that is a thing of the past. I don’t blame the current officers for the GM, I blame the nature of a big public meeting of students who cannot see the benefit of using their rare free time for such a vague semi-compulsory semi-formal unexplained meeting-thing.”

In the announcement of the use of online referenda, Pullan appeared to signal a movement away from formal gatherings like the AGM in favour of “digital” initiatives. “When it comes to digital engagement our members and students are pretty good at that. It’s getting actual people through the door that we struggle with,” Pullan told SCAN. “So the general meeting didn’t work, whereas I think if we asked the same questions as we did in the general meeting digitally there might have been a higher response rate.”

The AGM was also significant because it raised the topic of the viability of Union Council to represent its members. Union Council is made up of the Full-Time Officer team, cross-campus officers, JCR presidents and other elected officers, and acts to make decisions on behalf of the student body as a whole. Over the past academic year several Union Council decisions have come under criticism, including the aforementioned support for strike action by the UCU.

“I think as a Union this year we’ve made great steps in improving the transparency of what we do. We now have agendas, attendance lists, minutes online of Council – and that’s all Councils, including Academic Council and EWD Council available for all online” Pullan said. “So in terms of making Council more accessible to our members, we’re working on it. I think at the previous Council for example we had a lot of observers, probably the highest amount that I’ve ever seen.”

Another Union Council decision which came under criticism was the appointment of three liberation cross-campus officers, with some students alleging the use of the term “black” to label one of the new officers was indicative of a habit by LUSU to follow advice from the National Union of Students (NUS) rather than consult Lancaster students themselves. The decision to term an officer as “black” at Lancaster has now been altered to Ethnic Minorities Officer which after further consultation appeared a largely favourable term. The Full Time Officers are also contacting the NUS to find why the nationally recognised term is “black” because of feedback given by Lancaster students about the term.

This Pullan defended staunchly. “We pay a lot of money to be affiliated with the NUS. Liberation is a national movement. We were following national guidelines,” Pullan said. “I think it has been a good learning experience for Council because it has shown to us that we can’t be too complacent in the decisions we make and that we always have to keep consultation and engagement with the student body at heart.

“I’m not saying we didn’t consult, but we didn’t consult enough.”

While coming at a moment of reflection for the Union, Pullan’s new initiative also comes as part of a series of attempts to improve engagement between the Union and its members. During Lent Term, LUSU embarked on the #iwantlusuto campaign, aimed at finding out what students want most from their Union. The most prominent aspect of the campaign was the displaying of a giant blackboard in Alexandra Square, where students were encouraged to write their thoughts on the direction the Union should be heading. The responses ranged from constructive to profane.

“There were times when I was a bit unhappy with the quality of comments we were getting back,” Pullan said of the #iwantlusuto campaign. “But actually once you waded through some of the less constructive comments there were some really useful things there: calls for supporting postgraduates and international students a little better, cost of living, accommodation. We got a distinct sense of the priorities of students.”

In addition, Pullan is keen to improve LUSU’s ability to communicate to its members, suggesting that the Union needs to promote more of the “good things we’ve been doing.”

“We need to promote more of the good things we do, like Joel [Pullan, President] and Tom [Fox, VP (Welfare and Community)] lobbying the University counselling service, getting two new trainee counsellors; that is a win but I’m not sure how many people will know about that,” Pullan said. “It’s all about communicating with students and finding new, innovative ways of getting our message across.”

On this point, Edwards told SCAN: “Communication is hard, and is constantly changing. Furness JCR advertise events through Snapchat, everything seems to have a hashtag these days. It’s important for LUSU officers who aren’t FTOs to feel like an important part of the system throughout their time within the Union, not just so they can jump through the relevant hoops to be elected as future FTOs.”

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