Daring to trust the people ~ Leeds University Union ~ 8th December 2011

Leeds University Union
James Robertson, Campaign & Democracy Support Manager (Leeds University Union)

TL;DR – Students’ Union goes back to the drawing board on ‘democracy’ and ‘representation’, randomly selects panels of 12 students who make decisions on ideas submitted by students.

[Bit of an epic fan-girl post this one, I’m afraid. Leeds are widely acknowledged as one of the best students’ unions in the UK and whenever colleagues visit or go to conferences which include Leeds, they usually come back with a list of things they do that we should steal examples of best practice that we can learn from. I spent some time during lunch prowling their building taking photos of their information and building up a collection of their printed material. I must’ve looked like a bizarre tourist/stalker…]

Anyway, this session explained Leeds’ model for deciding whether or not the students’ union should adopt certain policies which is fairly ground-breaking for a sector which is traditionally obsessed with voting and meetings and elected people.

[As a quick overview for those of you not lucky enough to work with students’ unions (and seriously, I do totally love them, my sarcasm is affectionate and tender sarcasm); unions usually have a council comprised of elected representatives, usually to represent different groups of students (such as women students, postgraduate students and students on particular courses). The council is usually supposed to hold the elected officers accountable to students and can vote on policies submitted by students – these can vary from international politics (e.g. condemning China’s one child policy) to local issues (e.g. lobbying the University library to open for longer) and everything in between]

1. Look at what you do and plan your project

James started by outlining the findings of the union’s research into how its council was perceived by students. In what was perhaps not the most surprising news to those present, Leeds found that most of their students were unaware of the union’s council and those that were aware of it thought it was inaccessible (particularly in the language used such as ‘submitting motions’), irrelevant (particularly the topics discussed) and cliquey.

The union continued its research over a two year period to establish the aims of the democratic process, consult students, consider existing theories, model options and decide on a replacement decision-making process.

2. Go back to basics

The questions they tackled included some biggies such as ‘what is democracy’ (we loved the mention of a two hour debate over whether democracy is a noun or a verb) and ‘what is representation’. They were keen to go back to basics to define these concepts and consider how they related to the union’s purpose.

Their research found that students wanted to be able to have their say on ‘big issues’ (direct democracy) but were generally happy for others to speak on their behalf for other things (representative democracy).

James went on to discuss some of the broad concepts their research covered and some of their conclusions. Some of these points really challenged the way that students’ unions think and structure their actions. I found myself nodding along (like a moron) at quite a few points.

3. Look at things from the point of view of your members/users/customers

He described how students and students’ unions typically classify students (clue – they are not the same). Students’ unions like to group and consult people by demographic categories such as level of study (postgraduate/undergraduate), gender and age. Students however typically identify with other students based on three factors; what you study, where you live and what you’re into. James pointed out that these are the questions students ask each other during Freshers weeks and are really saying ‘are you like me?’

Leeds’ research found out that students who don’t consider themselves as ‘political’ are put off by elections and that reps who are appointed are more likely to consult others than those who are elected (based on findings from interviews with appointed and elected representatives). The latter point is probably quite controversial amongst (elected) students’ union officers and representatives as well as students’ unions more broadly as elections are often considered the pinnacle of democracy and appointing or selecting representatives seen as unfair, open to abuse and (crucially) unrepresentative.

4. Ask big questions

What is representation?

James explained that the union decided to create a definition of representation to support a shared understanding of the concept;

A making B present = re-representation

i.e. someone is a representative when they consult others and speak on their behalf. Winning an election is the beginning, not the end of representation.

</lightbulb moment>

He also pointed out that voting can never represent a plurality of views, i.e. the views of a representative of a particular group of students can never comprehensively represent all of their views.

What is democracy?

Voting ≠ democracy

‘rule by the people’ (from the Greek translation)

There are different forms of democracy;

  • Direct (used by students’ unions at general meetings)
  • Grassroots
  • Participatory
  • Consensus
  • Inclusive
  • Representative (most commonly used by students’ unions)
  • Deliberative

Students at Leeds came up with two principles for student democracy;

  • Decisions should be made by the people affected by them
  • Intuitive and existing student networks should be used

Leeds’ solution – Ideas & forums

The students’ union used their research to develop their concept of ‘ideas’. Any student can submitted an idea outlining what they think the union should do and why. These are divided into three headings; ideas to make a better union, ideas to make a better university and ideas to make a better Leeds.

These ideas replace the traditional ‘motions’ structure of ‘this union believes/notes/resolves’ (as James pointed out, no one woke up this morning and thought ‘I resolve to go to the conference). This change in language makes the process much more accessible and intuitive. At Sussex, we’ve already dropped the motion terminology and structure in favour of asking students to tell us what they think we should do and why and have already received more submissions than we would typically get for our AGM.

Leeds hold monthly forums during term-time for each category of ideas at which the ideas are presented to the members of the forum. Each forum has elected and (in the case of academic reps) appointed reps but, in a change to the usual format, also include 16 randomly selected students who form a sort of student jury. It is these randomly selected students that vote on the idea.

The students are selected using a mystical sounding system which analyses the demographic breakdown of the student population to generate a demographically representative sample of students. These students are then invited to attend a meeting for which they are rewarded with £20 (and the warm fuzzy feeling that voting gives you).

All the members of the forum can debate the issue (retaining the valued function of the previous council format) to ensure that the panel’s decisions are better informed. Meetings typically last 90 minutes and cover 5-7 ideas. With 15 forums per year and 16 students per panel this means that 240 students are involved in making decisions about the Union each year. For the forum to proceed, at least 12 of the 16 panel members must attend and at least half of the reps.

For a decision to be made, 75% of the panel must vote the same way (agreeing or disagreeing with an idea). If the result is inconclusive, the decision is put to all students in the union’s termly referendums (in which all students can vote). This process helps identify the ‘big issues’ that all students want a say in (as mentioned earlier), as Leeds feel that ‘big issues’ probably means ‘controversial issues’.

Students can’t overturn decisions made by the panel, they can only force more students to be involved in the decision-making process. A petition of more than 600 students forces the issue to be decided in a referendum.

One of the fears when models like this are suggested is that the ‘wrong’ people will be asked or that they will make the ‘wrong’ decision. James used examples of several ideas which could have cost the union millions of pounds if they had been adopted, neither of which were. He highlighted the need for clear information to be provided to the panel so their decisions are informed to increase the success and legitimacy of the process.

Benefits of the panel model

Leeds found a number of benefits from the change to the panel model;

  • an increase in the number of ideas submitted by students
  • ideas were considered more relevant to students
  • more students nominated themselves for elected positions
  • a record-breaking number of students voted in the union’s elections
  • they’ve had a greater impact as a charity
  • 76% of panel members were keen to get more involved as a result of their participation

My thoughts

As someone who has worked for a students’ union for eight years (makes me feel quite old) and was a full-time elected officer, this idea is quite challenging. We’re used to thinking that the ‘best’, ‘most democratic’ decisions are made by elected representatives. The idea of handing this over to randomly selected (unelected!) students really challenges the status quo.

Following the process that Leeds took to get to this model and seeing how it has worked for them has helped me challenge some of the assumptions that we currently operate under. I’m a big fan of starting with establishing principles behind a process and revisiting them throughout as Leeds did with their discussions about democracy and representation. It can be easy to hang on to ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and things that have worked in the past without considering if they are actually the best way to achieve your goals.

I’m keen to discuss the panel model (and the principles and development process behind it) with colleagues and officers to see if it could work for us.

Recommended reading & links;

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