Niall Coleman, Editor
Queen’s University saw history being made today as thousands of students voted in favour of creating a binding alliance between its Students’ Union and the wider staff and trade union movement. In a landslide victory for the organisers of the referendum, voter turnout records were smashed as 3,212 students took to the polls to vote. Of these voters, 94.12% indicated their desire to see the formation of an official and binding campaign alliance between their Students’ Union and other representative bodies, including the University & College Union (UCU) at Queen’s, which advocates on behalf on academic staff and PhD students.
The success of this week’s referendum means that the alliance of UCU and QUBSU members, known as “Take Back Queen’s”, will follow through with their pre-campaign pledge to submit their list of reforms to Senior Management at the University, in a bid to achieve what organisers have referred to as “real, constructive and progressive change”. Indeed, the mood on campus mirrored the optimism of the popular campaign. Rachel, a final year History student, welcomed the campaign. “Normally, referendums come and go at Queen’s, and most students are none the wiser. This time though, it was really visible – all my classmates were talking about it this morning”. Another student who wished to remain anonymous also applauded the campaign’s efforts: “Normally I would be dismissive of this kind of thing – students have a tendency to live in their own bubble. With a real alliance like this, maybe that will change, and we will see a fighting union like we saw many years ago”.
The “Program of Reforms” will see the alliance between QUBSU and UCU standing together on four main platforms: democracy, working conditions, equality and the marketisation of education. Responding to the repeated blocking of Student Council decisions by Queen’s University Management, the alliance has issued demands to form a “Democratisation and Decentralisation Committee” in an attempt to halt further interference in Students’ Union democracy. Referendum organisers intend that the formation of this working body must be followed by an agreed charter of democratic reform. Notably, the Program of Reforms demands that University Management endorse proposed changes to the Students’ Union constitution, so that decisions made by student councillors will be recognised as “sovereign”. This demand may present many obstacles to the newly forged alliance in an institution in which the power of elected students is severely limited, and frequently blocked by management staff “across the road”.
Working conditions are highlighted as a key point of negotiation by the activists involved in Take Back Queen’s. Casualisation of staff contracts is highlighted as a major issue at Queen’s University, which has seen many PhD students forced to take on second and third jobs. Shockingly, findings of a report published jointly by QUBSU and UCU demonstrated that a number of PhD students had pursued sex work in desperation to support themselves as academic staff. Unfair academic standards imposed upon academic staff have also been targeted as unjust by the alliance, who will be calling for a review of policies regarding both acceptable academic standards and disciplinary procedure.
Student Evaluations of Teaching (commonly known as SETs) have been condemned by Take Back Queen’s as “inherently biased”, and often amounting to an “indirect form of discrimination”. These issues, combined with the proven gender pay gap have prompted the alliance to call for an abolition of the current model of student evaluations, and an extensive review of salaries and promotion procedures.
Of the four key issues represented in the Program of Reforms, marketisation of education appears to be positioned as a point of priority by those leading the campaign. Following the referendum, it promised to call upon Senior Management not to enter into the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which the group claims will “marketise and damage the reputation of UK Universities”. Fundamentally, the campaign group seeks to prioritise ‘teaching quality’ over ‘customer satisfaction’ in a bid to protect “academic freedom” and to “safeguard teacher’s autonomy”.
The demands can be recognised as an application of further pressure on University Management following the publication of a damning report compiled by UCU and QUBSU entitled “Overworked, Undervalued, Underappreciated” which condemned worsening conditions for academic staff and students, reported by The Gown some months ago. Speaking to the newspaper, Sean Fearon, President of QUBSU, welcomed the historic vote:
“In one of the largest democratic exercises in the history of Queen’s Students’ Union, a record number of students turned out to give an overwhelming endorsement to a rapidly growing staff and student alliance. 94% of 3,212 students voted for their Students’ Union to build a campaign alliance with staff unions and the wider trade union movement to campaign for a democratic University free from marketisation and one which works in the service of society.
‘This historic referendum is a resounding victory for student activism and will have a profound impact on the solidarity between students and staff at the University, whose representatives have now pledged to work together to campaign on issues of democracy and equality as outlined in our ‘Program of Reforms’. Students at Queen’s University are active, engaged and passionate about progressive change within Higher Education and our society.
They have emphatically rejected the idea that they are passive customers in their education. Instead they have asserted themselves as partners with rights and duties within the University who are passionate about learning and eager to see a reversal of the culture and practices of marketisation that have swept across Higher Education in the UK’”.