One union’s journey to find its new democracy

Raquel Marques is Representation and Democracy Coordinator at City, University of London Students'​ Union

Simply put, our democratic structures at City Students’ Union were outdated and a bit of a mess.

Like plenty of other SUs, we had a lot of part-time officer roles which weren’t fit for purpose, we struggled to engage with the students in post, and we had more officers than we did full-time staff.

Our model was very traditional with all the usual features – a student executive and student council, neither of which were really working for us, despite our best efforts. We’d been struggling to fill the part-time posts for around 5 years resulting in multiple by-elections across the year, the experience for the officers was uninspiring, and the structure had passed its use by date.

In short there were more red flags than some Tinder bio’s, screaming at us that it was time for change – and so we set out on a journey to find our new democracy.

What was the process?

First and foremost, we spoke to our students, interviewed key stakeholders, and a reviewed alternative model of democracy for SUs. We looked locally, across the UK, and across various seas at Nordic and US models.

During the first stage, we reviewed the SU’s current structure, surveyed over 1300 students from across the university and ran focus groups with a wide range of different demographic groups. This was a lot of work, but as a union we funded an external democracy researcher post to project manage and complete the research – well worth it if you’re thinking of doing similar.

Some of the main things our students told us through our review were:

  • Our old structure was unfamiliar and unknown to students, it felt confusing and unrepresentative. They wanted more high-level representation. Having constituency-based full-time officers wasn’t important.
  • Students considered democracy genuinely important and wanted structures where they could be much more involved.
  • They wanted a large representative decision-making body, favouring parliament-style models over less elected officials.
  • Students recognised that there is little opportunity for first years and postgraduate students to be involved in setting the union’s direction.

Merging our research together we had a recipe for new democratic structures at City and agreed the union should be simple, easy to understand with minimal barriers to engagement.

We also resolved that decision making should be easy, inclusive, and policy continuity should be assured with clear chains of accountability and responsibility.

What were the proposed changes?

The final changes proposed came from our agreed recipe – with the aim to introduce a structure that is not just open to all students, but that encourages participation from underrepresented groups and is accessible. By making things easier to access for students, we’re hoping that change will actually happen, rather than it being spoken about for a year and failing to come to light.

To begin with, we removed our three portfolio-based sabbatical officers (President, VP Education and VP Community and Wellbeing) and moved to four non-portfolio sabbatical officer posts. Portfolios will be closely matched to university departments and our six schools will be divided between the team, allowing each officer to concentrate on various areas of the student experience that they are passionate about.

Our council and committee structures were removed, replacing them with a 50-person assembly (not the sit down on the floor kind) made up of elected and appointed members. We’ll move to one election a year for all posts. The positions in the assembly are proportionate to the number of students in each school and there’s reserved places for first year undergraduate and postgraduate students to be appointed, bringing the views of students who weren’t engaged with the union before back to the table.

The assembly will meet at least four times and the first meeting, which takes place shortly after the election, will set the priorities of the Union ahead of the next academic year.

The assembly will be an action-based meeting that focuses on discussion and consensus decision-making. It will be a community who are passionate about bringing issues and ideas to make City better, a space where students can scrutinise officers’ actions, and will help influence projects they’ve decided to develop. Non-elected students are welcome and we’ve created a provision to change a section of our meeting into an AGM if needed.

Overall, we’re hoping to empower students to have conversations, to share their lived experiences and to work towards delivering a great student experience for their communities at City.

We’ve now elected our brand-new assembly for 2022/23. Will it work? We will be sure to let you know. But when making changes like this, we’ve learnt to be agile, don’t force it to work, change it to make it work, adapt.

You can find out more on our website.

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