by Elliot Folan
Last month, it was revealed that UEA plans to raise accommodation fees for university students by up to 9%. Students have already come forward to say that they would not have been able to afford the new prices, and the students’ union has raised questions about accessibility and affordability. Yet the second big story of the fee rise is an issue of democracy. It was reported – and the university declined to deny – that student union officers were told they would not be consulted on the fee rise, and that the university had no intention of consulting them at all. In other words, on an issue that is of material concern to thousands of new and continuing students on our campus, management felt it necessary to completely ignore and override the wishes of our elected representatives.
Such contempt for democratic procedure is standard practice at UEA, and they speak to a wider problem of opaque decision making and lack of accountability on our campus and in the university system generally. There are three more examples of such undemocratic decisions.
First, earlier this year, despite clear support from the student body and from elected representatives, UEA management rejected fossil fuel divestment on the basis that they are not “a campaigning organisation”, and admitted that they don’t intend to confront fossil fuel companies about their polluting ways any time soon. In this sense, they’re happy to ignore the concerns of over 2,000 students and a clear majority of Union Councillors, who have all expressed a desire for our money not to be invested in companies that wreck our planet.
Secondly, last year, university management tried to rewrite UEA’s disciplinary regulations in such a way that would make it easier to fine or expel students for engaging in peaceful protest. The rewrites were pushed through without consultation of the student body, the students’ union or the university’s own committees, and the university’s disciplinary system remains slow, opaque and oppressive.
And finally, just this month, the university failed to inform the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS) of its support for new mobile bus passes before announcing the policy, leading to UEA hurriedly making adjustments to the policy once problems were inevitably pointed out by UUEAS. All of this, and more, tells us one thing: that UEA management have no respect for democratic procedure whatsoever. Yet this contempt for democracy is not confined to UEA.
Last year, Sussex University pushed through highly unpopular outsourcing plans, prompting mass protests from students in support of workers who are losing their jobs and being forced into poor conditions. The response of Sussex management was to call in the police, suspend protesting students and waste students’ money pursuing an injunction against all protest, rather than sitting down and listening to students’ concerns. The responses have been identical at London universities and in Birmingham.
In all cases, the pattern is clear: as long as our universities are run by unaccountable managers, we will always see our elected representatives ignored, our democratic wishes overridden and our right to protest crushed.
At NUS national conference in April, delegates voted against a policy of replacing university management with elected and recallable decision-makers. They made a mistake in doing so. Universities should be public, democratic spaces, with decisions made in our interests and not the interests of private profit.
If we want to ensure that we have a genuine say over fee rises, bus passes, disciplinary regulations, course structures, exams, course costs, environmental sustainability and what organisations our university invests in, then the answer is simple. We need to replace the unelected managers who run our university with democratically accountable decision-makers, who can be recalled at any time and who are elected in a cross-campus ballot. Only then can we truly start to exert genuine power over the decisions that affect our education and our lives – and the decisions taken using our money.