Student Senate, aptly held on April Fool’s Day, became a total farce when it was revealed that the votes cast during the four hour meeting were not valid and that it would have to be rescheduled.
Students and the Senate alike were left exhausted and confused on Tuesday following hours of debate about the submitted motions. The majority of the evening was dedicated to debating a controversial ‘Pro-Choice Union’ motion, which drew a large crowd of concerned students. The meeting was ended after the fourth hour, with only half of the motions having been discussed, because of the lateness of the day and concern for the welfare of the people present.
Although concern had been expressed early on in the Senate about the number of people there to vote, it was only confirmed on Thursday that the Senate was void as the board failed to reach the necessary target of 21 attending representatives.
In a statement given to gair rhydd, the Students’ Union said: ‘The Union is committed to its democratic values and believes that it is right and appropriate that the highest out of the two quoracy [minimum levels of voter turnout] levels are applied when making decisions. Therefore the decisions made on Tuesday will be revisited once a quorate meeting can be resumed. To avoid unduly influencing the next meeting and the Senators who were unable to attend, the voting records will not be disclosed.’
The shambles of the Senate’s validity was only one issue to emerge from the evening that has provoked strong reactions.
Motion five, which proposed Cardiff Students’ Union take a ‘Pro-choice’ stance, drew a great deal of attention, particularly from religious groups and the Union’s pro-life society, Students for Life.
Submitted by Women’s Officer, Emma Carragher, the motion urged the Union to officially become a ‘Pro-Choice union and support other unions, especially in Northern Ireland, in their campaigns for abortion rights.’
Certain clauses within the motion attracted the most criticism for their dismissal of individual opinions and the freedom of expression concerning the topic of abortion. In particular, point eight of the motion that wanted to ‘Prevent affiliated societies and groups from taking part in anti-choice protests or rallies’ was the subject of several amendments attempting to remove it.
One of the major concerns raised was the issue of freedom of speech as some feel this motion intends to silence certain groups within the University.
Isaac Spencer, President of Students for Life and one of the main speakers against the motion, expressed his frustrations to gair rhydd:
“It’s not really an issue of abortion as they’re trying to make it. It’s an issue basically of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Because whichever stance you fall on – people here are pro-life and pro-choice and everything in between – you agree that people have got to have the right to their own opinions and express those and we’re very worried this motion will prohibit that.”
An audience member affiliated with the society also addressed the Senate, remarking:
“Cardiff University Students’ Union acts in the best interest of and represents more than 28,000 individuals. Although some of these individuals identify themselves as pro-choice, others choose to identify themselves differently and so it’s inappropriate for the Students’ Union to only identify itself with one particular group.”
Faced with these criticisms, Emma Carragher defended her motion, adding: “I would like to reiterate this does not infringe on the right of any individual to do what they want… I firmly believe in the importance of free and open debate and discussion around issues like this” adding, “this is not in anyway targeted towards students or student groups.”
In light of these concerns, full time officers submitted amendments of their own aimed in particular towards the motion’s proposal to ‘prevent affiliated societies from taking part in anti-choice protests or rallies.’
President of the Students’ Union, Cari Davies, spoke to gair rhydd on behalf of the Full Time Officers team. She said: “Whilst the Union can and should take a political stance on issues, preventing societies from expressing contrary views through political action isn’t necessarily something the Union should be mandated to enforce.”
Censoring a particular group of students and their opinions is in contrast to the spirit of the Students’ Union, and as a result, the amendment was passed to remove this clause. However, all amendments put forward by the Students for Life society were rejected.
During the marathon Senate, SU President Cari suggested that the motion be taken to a wider body of representation within the University such as the AMM or a student-wide referendum. However, the senate twice rejected this recommendation, with only five out of the 19 Senators voting in favour of a referral.
With emotions already running high, this vote against an AMM appointment clearly frustrated certain Senate members. Heath Park’s representative Gemma Wheeler told the gair rhydd:
“To me, the real controversy at Student Senate happened when, after discussion for nearly two hours with no solid conclusions reached, Cari (SU President) suggested that we consult the wider student body, for example at AMM.”
However, Senate representatives “rejected the notion that we should engage in further consultation with the wider student body. Quite frankly, this did leave me gobsmacked.”
Those Senate members who voted against referral to a wider student representation argued that they were democratically elected by a cross-section of students to vote on their behalf. However, Heath Park rep Gemma Wheeler clearly disagreed with this defence, remarking:
“The argument that we were elected is not substantial enough to reject a request that we consult more people to gauge opinion on this matter’, adding ‘I cannot understand how anyone might believe that in a room where 19 people failed to come to a consensus in well over two hours, that any outcome might be representative of 28,000 students”.
Women’s Officer Emma Carragher, who submitted the ‘Pro-Choice Union’ motion and voted against an AMM referral, defended the Senate’s actions, explaining:
“I didn’t vote against taking it to AMM because I didn’t want more students to get their say, but because I felt voting for it would undermine the purpose of Student Senate. Every single person sitting around the table was elected by cross-campus ballot to represent students and make decisions on their behalf. To me, taking it to AMM makes Senate pointless: what else is it there for if not to debate policy on behalf of students?”
Voices of criticism grew louder after it was revealed all motions discussed at the Senate were unlikely to be binding. Members remained uncertain throughout proceedings over the validity of passing motions with so few representatives in attendance – only 19 out of a possible 40 – but continued regardless.
The Union said that the confusion arose because of a miscalculation of that the minimum number of voting members present needed to be, saying: ‘During the meeting the calculation was based on the permanent members of student senate as no randomly selected students had attended the meeting and set at 16.
Taking the seats for randomly selected students into account the quoracy level would be fixed at 21.’ This latter figure of 21 is the one publicly advertised as the minimum level, and the Union was therefore forced into an embarrassing position where the four hour meeting was practically pointless.’
The Student Senate website advertises the inclusion of ‘10 randomly selected students to attend each meeting.’ In the four meetings of the Student Senate this academic year, none of the students who have been selected have attended. Although suggestions to the contrary, the Union maintains that these students have been contacted.
VP Education and last year’s Chair of the Ministry of Change [the former incarnation of Student Senate], Ollie Wannell has also identified problems inherent in the Senate’s formation. ‘Last year it worked’, he said, ‘students turned up. This year they haven’t. I think it’s a hangover from last year’s structure that no one has acted upon.
Despite the uncertainty at the time on the legitimacy of the Senate’s vote, the ‘Pro-Choice Union’ motion was voted on. While the voting results weren’t revealed because of a fear of prejudicing future votes, an indicative vote suggested that the motion would have had eight people voting in favour, five against, with the rest abstaining.
Following four hours of proceedings, the Senate had only debated and voted on four out of ten scheduled motions. Those students who attended the Senate’s audience in order to engage with the agenda’s latter motions sat through the debacle only to be told the Senate would postpone the remaining motions out of concern the full agenda would take proceedings late into the night.
The farcical show exposed major flaws and incompetencies within the structure and inner-workings of the Senate; a student representative forum regulated by the Union that Cardiff students appear to know very little about.
A second year student, Gary Evans, also criticised the lack of student engagement, saying: “For decisions that affect so many to be made by so few is undemocratic, especially in a forum that the vast majority of students are unaware of.”
The question of representation has plagued the Senate since it’s formation at the beginning of the year. The Union has been pro-active in establishing equal male and female representation on the Senate board, however certain groups within the University remain under-represented.
Consisting of around 6,500 of the University’s 28,000 students, the Heath Park campus remains severely under represented, with Gemma Wheeler having provided a single Heath Park voice during last week’s Senate.
‘As Heath Park students make up between 20 and 25% of the student population, I am not convinced that having one Heath Park Student [Gemma herself] … is truly representative. This is not the fault of Student Senate, as the representatives around the table were, as they correctly pointed out, elected. However, I would question if whether the voter turnout was also representative’ said Gemma.
One of the Senators, Harry Thompson, having found out about the situation, said: “I’m very disappointed that this has happened – there were people at that meeting who should have known about the quorum, and we were assured several times that we met it, as there were 19 Senators present. All Senators took over 4 hours out from their lives to do this with no reward, and now have been told this is all completely pointless. I know Senators who had essays due in the next day and then had to stay up until 5:30am to write them as the meeting overran so much. Many had dissertations due in for a few days later. As mistakes were made from the people running the meeting, special circumstances should be allowed to make the meeting valid. The Senate (above quorum) should be allowed to vote to approve the previous meeting – anything else would be an insult to the time and hard work put in by Senators, who are losing out through no fault of their own. “
The Student Senate will be rescheduling last week’s meeting, with all the motions being debated and voted upon once again. However, with the assessment period looming, it is unclear whether there will be time for it to take place before the end of the academic year.