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President Laura Clayson has said that the University’s lack of dialogue with the Students’ Union on the recent rent and tuition fee increases had created “a precedent that the University does not listen to student representatives.” Clayson has defended the way she has treated the rent and fee increases issue after criticism from other officers within the Union. In an article for the SCAN website, Clayson revealed that she had withheld confidential information from other Union officers in order to maintain the Union’s credibility and allow a constructive dialogue between the Union and the University rather than sabotage later opportunity for improvements. Clayson’s critics have argued that her strategy has provided little opportunity for effective student campaigning against the changes, though there appears to be a consensus that the University’s institutions do not provide an adequate outlet for student consultation.
Speaking to SCAN, Clayson said: “for me it proves that the structures we currently have in place are a way in which the University pays lip service to student consultation, rather than actually listening to them.” This was echoed in a statement in Union Council, Thuesday Week 2, by Councillor Lizzie Houghton. Houghton said that the University had put its student officers in a difficult position, tying their hands on the issue, keeping the information confidential. “This meant [Full-Time Officers] felt they were unable to communicate this with the wider union, which meant that the wider union wasn’t able to act until in effect it was too late.” Following the affirmation of the changes to fees and campus rent, the Students’ Union campaigned strongly against the increases, as well as a group of independent students who occupied University House for 24 hours in protest against the changes in Week 9, Michaelmas Term.
Elsewhere in Union Council, officers debated the merits of keeping information confidential in order to maintain constructive dialogue at the expense of effective student campaigning. VP (Union Development) Damon Fairley supported Clayson’s decision to keep the information confidential, maintaining that it was beneficial towards future cooperation between the Union and the University. “I think Laura [Clayson] was right with the decision she made because subsequently later on we got seats on other committees we might not have got had we burnt those bridges. But then again I think it’s really important to have this council’s steer on what you actually want us to do as full time officers in this situation, because it is sometimes a really hard situation to be in.”
Meanwhile, VP (Campaigns and Communications) Ronnie Rowlands said that he thought that members of the Union should be willing to break confidentiality to ensure students are best informed on issues important to them. “In many ways the idea of confidentiality from the University is them trying it on. If things are kept confidential they are generally kept confidential because they don’t want people to find out about it. In the intent of building bridges how many principles do you sacrifice, how many awful decisions do you allow to go through. I think in these positions, and when we have been in these positions, we can ignore confidentiality and tell everyone because it’s important for people to know frankly.”
Clayson herself said that the decision to keep information regarding the fee and rent increases secret had been difficult, but she does not regret her decision. “Whilst there would have been longer for students to campaign I do not believe that the outcome would have been any different. Learning from the outcomes of last term I now have much more of an understanding of University Management and their motivations, which is to strive for profit.
“In that sense I think I made the right decision, as to have gone public straight away would have removed the opportunity for constructive dialogue. I had to manoeuvre within the structures I was placed; to have transgressed them straight away would have made any kind of negotiation impossible.”
Clayson also felt that “as a result of engaging through the meetings that I had the opportunity to participate in as a student representative, it gave us more legitimacy in supporting the direct action taken by students against the decision. For example, when the occupiers were told that they should be communicating through their student representatives, they were able to say that that route had already been tried and their representatives had been ignored. If I had have given up the opportunity to voice my opposition through the authorized channels, then any direct action taken could have been invalidated as a result.”
In Union Council on Thursday Week 2, VP (Union Development) Damon Fairley supported Clayson’s decision to keep the information confidential, maintaining that it was beneficial towards future cooperation between the Union and the University. “I think Laura was right with the decision she made because subsequently later on we got seats on other committees we might not have got had we burnt those bridges. But then again I think it’s really important to have this council’s steer on what you actually want us to do as full time officers in this situation, because it is sometimes a really hard situation to be in.”
Clayson apologised in Union Council to those who felt she should have revealed the information. She was also largely critical of the deliberation towards the final decision, writing frankly for SCAN that the process made her feel “disempowered and disillusioned.” Clayson said that she did not “hear the information and ignore it” but raised her strong opposition to the proposals which had already been made. “The decision was made before I had any information that this was even being discussed. I didn’t hear the information and ignore it – I vehemently opposed the proposals in every meeting it was discussed in.” Clayson’s dissent was recorded on the Finance and General Purposes Committee; as well as this she showed her disapproval through emails with the Vice-Chancellor and meetings with key members of staff.
Clayson however believed that leaking this information would only have had a negative effect, saying that she felt that “going public would undermine our ability to negotiate and harm relations with the Union in future years, beyond my year as President. I didn’t take the decision lightly. Being the person I am, I would rather have gone public, but I did not perceive that to be in students’ best interests in the long term or the short term. It was after consulting with several people that I trust, it was decided that this decision was in the wider membership’s best interests.
“What I have learnt from this is that we need more student representation, and we need to be more supportive of officers trying to take decisions in the memberships’ best interests. Yes it would have been great to get angry earlier, but it also would have made any win impossible as there would have been no trust or motivation to engage in dialogue with the Union. I would be failing the students I represent if I had have allowed that to happen.”
Debate regarding the increases set to take place to postgraduate and international tuition fees and to campus rents, is continuing. Following the occupation of University House by student activists it was announced that negotiations would take place between the University and the student Union in order to construct a dialogue on the issue.
According to the President these negotiations are likely to begin during early February. “As a full time officer team we are awaiting negotiations with the University. A representative from those who occupied will also join us. The meeting is likely to take place at the beginning of February.
“We intend to keep campaigning on this issue, alongside our cost of living campaign, as all of this is interlinked. I think that out of all of this I just want it to be remembered that this decision should not fragment our student body – we now have a credible position to negotiate from, rather than a weak one that the University doesn’t take seriously.”