Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
Well, I did say I was going to put a post up about the SU. This, as they say, is it. It's all about the LSE Students' Union, so it may not be of interest to everyone or, indeed, anyone.
I suspect and hope that this post will generate some discussion; hell, even some controversy. If anyone wants to use any of the ideas, go for it. You don't have to give me any credit. For some reason, I give a damn about the SU, and I hope that some of the ideas are taken on board. I'm not saying that I have some grand plan for the Union, but I do have, after four years of poking around, some experience. It's a bit rambling, it's full of half-baked ideas, it has things that I probably don't agree with. Here it is.
It is wholly unacceptable that parts of the campus are off-limits to students (and others) with mobility issues. Sadly, saying so doesn't make it any more accessible. We should, ideally during a vacation, conduct an accessibility audit of the LSE site. That means a group of people who use wheelchairs and those who have other difficulties in accessing the campus going round every last building, officer, classroom, toilet, nook and cranny and going over the whole thing with a fine toothcomb. The LSE says that some buildings are accessible which in practice means parts of them are. It says the New Theatre is accessible – so long as only one or two people who use wheelchairs want to be in there at once and no-one else wants to come through that door.
That having been done, it would be possible for things to be prioritized. All the SU needs to be accessible – at the moment, the Societies Manager, General Manager, Treasurer, General Secretary, Finance Manager, Beaver & PuLSE are inaccessibly located. They could be moved to the other side of the East Building, in the rooms on the first, second and third floors above the reception and shop. At the moment, those accessible spaces are, I believe, occupied by offices that are of a lower priority. Some of them are things like careers – these need to be in accessible location but don't have to be right there. Under the DDA & SENDA, the School is obliged to make reasonable adjustments. Given that a lot of moving and construction is going on at the moment, it would not be unreasonable of the Union to ask the School to better accommodate it as those moves happen. I'll talk about the SU moving from the East Building later.
Another issue with accessibility is doors. Conventional, swinging doors are a nightmare for some people. Some doors are particularly heavy and become impossible. I don't know what the answer is, but more powered doors (the same system as the library, perhaps?) around the place would be a good idea.
There are two rest areas available for students with disabilities. There are times when neither are being used, which the School loves to jump on, but there are also lots of times when both are being used. The rest areas make the difference for some students between being able to stay at LSE to study and not being able to stay at LSE to study, both on a particular day and in general. They are, for the students that use them, incredibly important. The SU needs to work with people like Jean Jameson to make sure that they are maintained and, if possible, added to.
I wonder if it would be possible to construct a ramp to allow people who use wheelchairs to access the Old Building through the main entrance rather than having to use the poorly-staffed back route. I don't know what the maximum acceptable angle is, but it could be constructed along the side of the Old Building, heading towards the S Building. Once past the doors, the ramp could be recessed into the section after the inside steps. Does that make any sense? I'm sure it could work.
One of my principal activities over the last four years has been complaining about the LSE's multitudinous mistakes. There are so many, some of breathtaking levels of incompetence, that Something Should Be Done. I think it might be helpful if the Union ran a parallel complaints system, so that anyone could report a problem with the School. It wouldn't necessarily mean that the Union would get involved in a particular case, but it would give the Union an idea of problems that occur frequently. For instance, US students (I am told) frequently have loan payments delayed and it would appear that the delay comes in at the LSE end. If the SU could go to the School and say there have been n cases of this it would have a much greater chance of resolving the problem permanently than individual students.
The LSE Fuck-Up Directory could extend to all the administrative functions the LSE carries out and would have the added advantage of giving people a quick, easy and direct form of communication with the SU. It could be as simple as a box in the Quad (and the halls, brunch bowl etc.) and an email a couple of days later to say what's being done about it.
Right. Halal and kosher food. We're missing a trick on this one; everything we're doing is right, but it needs to be more co-ordinated and as loud as my shirts and socks. The SU needs to start selling more halal and kosher food. Yes, I know it has started, but three different kinds of sandwich doesn't rate. Anyway, once we've shown we can make money from it and we can show that other unis make money from it, we organize the mother of all petitions – everyone and anyone who's interested, and we make a stink about it. The Beaver could play a part in pushing things forward – a little investigative journalism would be helpful.
Now, one of my favourite topics: the Copy Shop. The Copy Shop is very well run, but I think it needs to be a bit more aggressive in attracting business and providing an all-round service. It needs to be advertised better, both within the LSE community and outside. We occasionally have King's students coming in because it's cheaper than their facilities. As well as the 3p copying, it would be useful to have 3p printing. The same system of flexicards could be used and we could still make money.
The Course Packs need to be expanded. The Library packs cost more and the department has to order a fixed number at the start of the year; if there are any left over, the department has to buy them back, if there aren't enough, tough. The Copy Shop can make them to order and the quality is better than the library (they don't have the nice orange outer but they go back to the originals rather than using photocopies given by lecturers and so the copies are more readable). They can be produced even if a lecturer doesn't ask for them just by going to the reading list. I don't think we should compete on the packs the library is already doing – that would just annoy them – but there are plenty of courses that just aren't offered.
As I said during the campaign, I think we should open an international calling shop. It could be placed in what is currently the salon. It could be done in the same way as calling shops on the high street or using a system like Skype and routing it through the internet, which might make it easier for one person to operate. While it is true that not all international students at LSE would use it as they are well off enough just to use mobiles, not everyone is by a long shot. Moreover, there are lots of other people who come from overseas at the LSE and we could pick up trade from the street.
There is a limit to how much money we can extract from students and others at LSE. We need to position, in a geographical sense, our services like the copy shop and anything else in that line to pick up more trade from the public. If Kinko's on Chancery Lane can make money charging 10p/copy, we can undercut them. There is money to be picked up from the legal trade and from the other businesses in the area. It would also make sense, if there is going to be photocopying, printing, calling and faxing, to have them all together in one place. It would allow for one set of staff and for the various services to advertise each other.
The safe transport scheme on Friday nights has been a resounding success. Could the scheme be extended to other nights, maybe starting on Wednesdays and going to other days? If everyone knew there was a bus going to halls at a given time or given times, I'm sure it would be used. Imperial College have a number of minibuses that are paid for through, I believe, sponsorship. Could the LSE do the same, either on its own or through ULU or in partnership with another London university? Those minibuses could then also be used for sports clubs and societies at the weekend. I don't know what the situation is with the AU clubs, but I'm guessing only the larger clubs have buses provided and everyone else has to make their own way. Certainly, societies frequently have events they have to travel to and having minibuses available would make the whole process a lot cheaper. I believe I'm right in saying that at Imperial, anyone with a full driving licence can use the minibuses provided they have taken IC's own driving test. Certainly, I think it might be worth someone talking to Imperial to see how they do it and whether we could do something similar.
Would someone explain to me what is wrong with the Constitution and Codes of Practice? Certainly, there are areas that need tweaking and neither has every 'i' been dotted nor every 't' crossed, but it basically hangs together and does what it's meant to. I don't see any great gaps in it or anywhere it is just in the way. However, there are some ideas that came up in the review process that were never put into place. Firstly, there are various taskforces that just haven't happened – Ents and so on – that should either be put into place or scrapped. There is a real problem in that a lot of these taskforces end up being meetings of the same group of hacks with axes to grind and so unless there is going to be a concerted effort to bring in new people they are probably better removed.
Another idea was that of non-Sabb exec officers reporting to the Sabbs. The idea was written in but I don't know how much it happens. As there are always some members of the Exec who don't pull their weight, I think it would be an idea for this process to go on. I don't know what the best way of implementing it would be, but maybe Exec meetings might be an appropriate forum.
I think it is important that everyone is aware why some officers are there. It's fairly obvious why some of them are there – postgraduates are often treated badly by the school and aren't involved in the Union. The postgraduate officer is there to campaign and to remedy those problems. The same goes for the Anti-Racism, Women's, Students with Disabilities and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Officer. They are not there just to represent groups because life is so terribly difficult for them and we should really be nice to them. They are there to campaign. For instance, there are very few black British students at LSE. That doesn't mean that people in the administration are actively turning people down because they're black, but it does point at institutional racism. Certainly, this is part of a wider problem with society but that does not mean, just because it is difficult, that we should not do anything about it. We need different officers for each area because there are particular issues that affect each group. The LGBT officer and society help people, for instance, with coming out. So far as I know, no-one 'comes out' as being a woman. Moreover, the people affected by discrimination know better than anyone else what nature it takes and how to deal with it. We don't need the old system of having one or two equal opportunities officers for those reasons. If you recall the old system, there was an equal opportunities (male) and an equal opportunities (female). If you take that position to its logical conclusion, we also need an abled officer, a straight officer and a white officer.
There is an issue around the weeks that are organized for the various campaigns. I don't want to slag them off at all, as people put in a huge amount of work to do them. All I would say is that we must make sure that we have the campaigns going all the time; they cannot just be a one-week jolly with speaker events just attended by people who are already convinced.
Everyone bangs on about involving people more in the SU. I think that we're missing an opportunity by not getting them right at the start – before they even arrive at LSE and when they're in halls.
We could rethink the pack that is sent out to new students. At the moment, it is a whole load of bits of paper, brochures and fliers. Well, let the School keep doing that. If we could send out a sort of folder with the SU logo on the front, a map of the SU on the inside and a series of important dates and times on the back (term dates, when and where freshers' fair is, when the UGM is, when AU night and Crush, where the Chaplaincy and Islamic prayer rooms are) with all the bumph, it would look a lot better and people might read it.
Obviously, the main thing that goes out, from the SU's point of view, is the handbook. However, it needs to be that – a handbook, not an attempt at a complete guide to the SU. It should be something that people might just read and, as it stands, it isn't. It can just point people to where they can get more information on a particular issue; it doesn't have to cover everything. As I suggested at the start of the year, I think changing the format to a pamphlet-size would be an idea; people are more likely to carry something that actually does go in their pocket. The calendar that went in the front of the handbook was a good idea; I wonder if it would work to expand it so that people effectively had their own diary for the year with certain key events already in place.
Another good place to grab people is in halls. Posters bloody everywhere, for starters, as well as fliering under doors. Yes, it's annoying but people read them and if what they're advertising is of interest, people may come.
Beyond that, however, having people in the halls who think they have a stake in the Union is the best way to bring people along. They will come and they may bring their friends and so on. The hall committees need to be better supported and there needs to be better working between them. I don't know enough about the situation to give any proper advice, but I have the impression that they are in a no-person's land between School, Halls and Union. I think they should be brought into the Union, perhaps having a status similar to the AU, Beaver, PuLSE and Script. That way, common problems across halls can be addressed, best practice can be shared, joint events organized and so on. It also means that the School will be aware that instead of maybe a dozen slightly annoyed students calling it up on poor maintainance (or whatever) it will have the SU. True, not a terrifying threat, but the SU is better placed than individual hall committees to negotiate with the School and, when necessary, oppose the School.
Moving swiftly on, the UGM needs to be maintained. Now, people always say that we must do something about the UGM but never why it is a good thing. Every single member of the Union can, in theory, come to the UGM. It keeps things open and helps accountability. It is not perfect, but it does generally work. The alternative, delegative model of democracy leads down the path to ULU and NUS – irrelevance and hackishness. For the most part, the members of the SU know what's good for them and what they want to do. Allowing them to bring up matters that are important to them makes the Union more effective and ultimately delivers a better time at LSE for people. Now, it is not perfect, but it is a damned sight better than most other Unions.
To begin with, it needs to be advertised better; posters need to go up everywhere – on the walls of Houghton Street, on every posterboard in halls and on campus. If that's too many to put up every week, generic ones can be put up in some places.
However, the way to keep people coming is to make what goes on in the Union relevant to them. While the 'banter' that goes on is genuinely amusing, it can't be allowed to dominate proceedings as it can just end up in the way. The various deals and contracts the Union goes into need to be debated properly. For instance, debating what advertising we should have on the website, I'm sure, raised interest and awareness, even if just among the UGM goers, of its existence. The R&B suspension/ban should have been done through a motion so it could be debated, and not effectively implemented by executive order. At least, the Executive could have suspended it until a debate took place at the UGM, rather than banning it and leaving it at that. It was a controversial decision and no real debate took place in a forum that could actually change things.
As I said above, some officers really don't pull their weight. The UGM should be prepared to censure them. It needs to be done in the proper way, with plenty of warning and so on, but it has, sometimes, to be done. I think the General Secretary should probably be the one to put the motion in. Enough of that issue.
Motions come in from time to time on things like the War on Iraq. It doesn't matter very much if the Union passes policy or not on those issues, but it does matter that people can debate and raise issues that are of importance to them. The SU was one of the first bodies to boycott South African goods during the Apartheid era; I challenge anyone to stand up and say it was wrong to do so because it was political and not about students. Let an issue be debated on its merits and let it be supported or rejected because of the arguments that are brought to bear, not because of a throwaway catchphrase. If people support a motion, let it through; it has won the argument.
I want to address the issue of paper throwing. A lot of the people who throw paper do it for a laugh and a giggle. Well, I'm sure it is funny, but the effects are rather more serious. You then have some people trying to justify it as being part of debate and akin to heckling. As has happened a few times this term, when so much paper is being thrown that the speaker cannot communicate, it cannot be said to be adding to the debate. Paper throwing is intimidatory. It's not nice having a barrage of paper thrown at you from upstairs; I would add that most of the people who throw the paper haven't ever spoken at the UGM. Aside from putting speakers off their argument, it puts people off coming to the UGM or coming back to the UGM. Yes, first-time speakers are 'protected', but one brief speech in the Old Theatre does not make you enough of an orator to put up with that barrage. Secondly, it is discriminatory. I suffer from Menniere's Syndrome, the details of which are unimportant, but it affects my balance. I sometimes find standing up there quite difficult and simply impossible with things being thrown at me. Why should I be stopped from speaking because I have a disability? I'm sure someone will now say that I could say that I have a disability. Why? Why should I have to advertise my medical history to all and sundry? In any case, it doesn't work; I said that I suffered from Menniere's at a UGM where I was trying to have paper throwing stopped, and people kept throwing paper. Paper throwing is childish, adds nothing to the debate, frequently makes debate impossible and discriminates against some people. Just stop it; it's not worth it just for a cheap laugh.
There is, in theory, a system of course reps at the LSE. Given that some teachers and lecturers (as well as the ever-present administration) are pretty poor, they are needed but they are simply not there. I have even heard of instances of departments effectively rigging elections to stop difficult people being chosen. The Students' Union needs to establish that they are part of the SU and therefore that the SU represents on issues of academic quality as well as the other things we know and love. Now, this would mean a lot of extra work, but it would have the advantage of involving more people in the SU. This might be an ideal place, along with hall elections, to use electronic voting. I'm not going to go into the details now, but it could be done relatively easily using the existing email system and automatically done using the ERS's STV programme. They need more support and their existence needs to be advertised so that people with a problem on a course can go to them, they can raise issues off their own bat, suggest changes to courses for following years and so on. Ultimately, some agreement from the School would probably be necessary to make them work. It may already exist, in which case it probably needs updating and certainly needs to be put into action.
Involvement doesn't really happen unless people know what they're talking about. To that end, the Beaver needs to start debating more Union issues. For instance, it has been mooted that the SU should move closer to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Could the Beaver raise some of the issues attached to it (would the centre of the School move from Houghton Street, as was intended when the D building opened; how will it affect finance; purpose-built buildings). This isn't a 'party-political' issue but is one where people will have an opinion.
I am of the opinion that PuLSE should develop more of a news services and have the occasional debate on issues. The NUS debate at election time in particular worked well and offers another channel to go along with the Beaver.
Finally, I think that Office Hours need to be extended. It's all well and good if the various officers have hours when people can reach them, but they're useless if no one knows when they are, where they are or that they even take place. Each Sabb should spend maybe two hours a week having office hours in the Quad with a great big sign above them saying 'General Secretary Office Hours' or something similar. Each non-Sabb exec should maybe do the same twice a term. At least one Sabb (and maybe the residences officer) should go around each hall twice a term, ideally in the evening. That immediately makes people more accessible. A lot of people seemed to take this on board at the elections, so I hope it happens.
The role of the Communications Sabbatical is not clear and it needs to be clarified both by what the new incumbent does and through changes to the job description. I viewed the position as having three divisions – helping run, organize and co-ordinate the campaigns; promoting and advertising the Union within the Union; and raising revenue through advertising. The first two are fairly obvious, but I think the advertising issue bears looking at.
At the moment, the Beaver, the Script, the AU, the SU and then various societies go out and look for advertising, usually from all the same people. That is bonkers. We would stand a better chance of extracting more money from the usual suspects (STATravel, Goldman Sachs, NatWest etc.) if we presented a single rate card. This would have the added benefit that societies could go to the Communications Sabbatical and say that they had a particular event planned they wanted sponsorship for or that they wanted sponsorship for the year and go from there. That way, individual societies would have a better chance of finding money they need. I know from bitter experience with the debate society how hard it is to find advertising money for some societies.
I also think we should investigate the possibility of branding the SU. I don't like the idea of having 'LSESU in association with UBS' but if it can bring in an extra £20,000, it'd be worth it. In any case, it's something to look at.
I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on anyone. There are vested interests here, and no group will want to lose any control over any of its income, but doing so has the potential to raise revenues from advertising.
Finally, something on names. There's been something of late about whether Comms should be called 'Communications Sabbatical' or 'Communications Officer'. How about calling the four positions 'General Secretary', 'Finance Secretary', 'Education & Welfare Secretary' and 'Communications Secretary'. That makes it clear that they are different from the non-Sabb exec without using the word Sabbatical, which most people don't understand in this context. I suppose Treasurer is catchier, though.
As I said during the elections, I think that the SU should represent postgraduate teachers to the School. This role is usually done by the trade unions, but bringing the SU on board as well allows a much more rounded approach as many of the issues that affect postgrads also affect undergrads. At the moment, the School can and does say, for instance, that more pay isn't actually what's needed for postgrad teachers. If the SU says that not only do postgrads want it (what surprise) but that undergrads want their teachers to be better paid, it adds considerable weight to the argument.
I think particular areas that could be looked at are, aside from pay, class sizes (some of them are just too big) and the policy of requiring essays in weeks 5 and 9. We all know that people end up writing bad, rushed essays because of an artificial deadline that then leads to postgrad teachers having a lot of marking to do all at once.
Most postgrads, and certainly all PhD students, have pigeonholes that might make a useful way of communicating with them.
I don't really know much about the issue of international students. I do wonder if there actually is an international students issue; that is to say, are they affected in any way as international students, or are they affected in the same way as home/EU students, but more so due to distance from home and added costs. In any case, the old deal with the school whereby fees don't rise above the rate of inflation so that people can plan ahead might be something we want to look at reviving, particularly given that after the Asian tsunami and the strength of the pound, the LSE is toning down fee increases. The other big issue is banking; we should look at getting a better deal for students at a different bank. This would probably mean moving the SU's account from NatWest as well (but not necessarily) and negotiating a deal for waving bank charges in return for exclusive access to freshers' fair with another bank.
The quality of elections at LSE is low. Particularly for the Sabb elections, you cannot compress your manifesto into one piece of A4. There is too much to say and the attempt to shrink it down ends up with bland platitudes. I think, at least for the Sabbs, you should be allowed to spend another £50 specifically on manifestos.
I question whether society endorsements are a good thing. They probably do push turnout up, but I don't think that they engage people more with the Union.
We should look at electronic voting as a tool for involving more people in the Union. I actually think that it would lower turnout if introduced for the main Michaelmas and Lent elections, but it could possibly be used for hall elections, course rep elections and AU elections as a trial. Electronic counting, certainly for elections that use STV rather than AV, can speed things up and guarantees an accurate result, as we found out at the C&S recount last term. The programme, eSTV, comes from the ERS and can be registered for free.
Lastly, there should be a hack exclusion zone around the entrance to the Quad when elections are on so that people don't have to run the gauntlet to get it as they do at the moment. Putting tape down on the ground maybe 3m away from the entrance and banning campaigning inside would probably do the trick.