Angus Shaw reports on the SU’s manoeuvre to deny transport to a free-education demonstration
This week Essex’s Students’ Union held and then overturned the result of a vote for SU-provided transport to London, where students wished to take part in the National Free Education demonstration against tuition fees on November 15th.
The question phrased ‘Should the SU organise, fund and advertise a bus to the Free Education Demo on the 15th of November?’ received an overwhelming majority of votes in favour of the motion by students across campus, however was then later deleted from the Student Idea webpage after the SU Trustee Committee cited insurance complications with the result.
The situation has raised many concerns by students both on-campus and across the country about the SU’s commitment to the democratic basis of the university’s students. Essex Free Education, a group established in the wake of the November 15th demonstration, released an open letter detailing its frustrations about the decision:
“We are extremely concerned about the overturning of a democratic decision by the trustee board”, it reads. “Essex Students’ Union claims ‘we’re not like other SU’s and we don’t want to be’. Given this, it is perhaps not unsurprising that unlike many other student unions across the country, Essex SU are not prepared to support students in attending the national demonstration next Wednesday.”
After designing and distributing banners, flyers and holding meetings for the demonstration, the group became informed that the reasoning behind the SU’s controversial move was due to recommendations from its insurance provider Endsleigh. A spokesperson for Essex Free Education explained to Rebel the monetary difficulties which the decision had brought to the event, saying “a number of students had already signed up and [paid] £5 deposit for the bus.”
“In fact, this is a pattern of behaviour from Essex SU.” They continued. “Three years ago, the SU also refused to provide a coach to a national demonstration. In this context, the decision to ignore the student vote is both undemocratic and an attempt to restrict student dissent.”
Among the so far nearly 100 signatures comprised of academics, alumni and countrywide university students from Essex to Oxford, Essex Free Education’s open letter also includes the signatures of prominent student representatives such as NUS Women’s Officer Hareem Ghani and Taran Baragwanath, Essex’s LGBTQ+ SU officer.
“… it is perhaps not unsurprising that unlike many other student unions across the country, Essex SU are not prepared to support students in attending the national demonstration next Wednesday.”
A student wishing to remain anonymous expressed that activities far more risk associated, such as sports, have received SU support without insurance concerns, yet relatively safe demonstrations such as this have not: “If we can’t get a bus to a demo on the grounds of risk of harm, then why not ban all sports buses on the same grounds? I’ve had plenty of sports injuries in my life, and so far zero bus crashes or attacks at protests.”
In a press release supplied to Rebel this story of a democratic denial to students is detailed to have reached a national level when Hope Worsdale, member on the National Committee for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), gave a statement on the issue:
“It is deeply concerning to see a democratic decision taken by a student body overturned by an SU Trustee Board. Dozens of SUs all over the country are putting on coaches for their members to attend the upcoming national demonstration – thus the justification for the decision by the board of University of Essex Students’ Union seems incredibly shaky and ultimately illegitimate. The NCAFC have undertaken a thorough and comprehensive risk assessment for this demonstration; I cannot see any reason why this risk assessment has been perfectly sufficient for so many SUs but not for Essex – their Trustee Board have many questions to answer.”
Rebel has since been granted an interview with Tancrède Chartier, SU VP for Services and Communications, who emphasised that such issues are a by-product of a policy for safety above all:
“We recognised as a union that the risks, as people have said, were minimal, in the aspect that the likelihood of something happening was quite low. ” He said. “We realised as a union that we don’t have any policy going forward in terms of assessing the threat of a terrorist attack happening. This is on the radar of the Trustee Board and we will be drafting as soon as possible a policy for the threat of terrorism to make sure that in the next demonstration happening we will be able to send our students forward.”
The full interview with Mr Chartier can be read here.
With Essex University ranking 14th in the country for student satisfaction and in the top 15 for five years running, the SU has seemingly dented such a reputation for at least the group of students involved in the demonstration. However with Essex also standing at second place only two years ago, actions sparking controversy among students such as this may have a greater impact on the university’s already recent decline to double digits.