Our year with the ‘worst union in the country’

by Teesside Free Education activists

The first year of the Teesside Free Education Campaign has been a frustrating one, with more time taken up in conflict with Teesside University Student Union than in doing anything practical. TFEC was formed in October last year, rising out of discussions between the Labour and Green Party societies, and our first move was to try to make it official TUSU policy to back the cause of free education. We collected more than the 50 signatures necessary to call a General Meeting of the student body – we agreed to fold this into the AGM, with the two events being so close together.

We were hoping for official assistance in planning travel to the November 19 thought that for the longer term, the motion would be an easy symbolic victory to start off with. (And also possibly grant us access to union funds or at least the organisational structures of the SU.) The signatures were handed over to Will Ridley, the SU President, who admitted being unsure of the exact procedures required to present a motion, but promised to get back to us. (It had been over two years since students last called a General Meeting; apparently the procedures weren’t in the induction process).

Instead he and Education Officer Ryan Marshall tabled a motion which stated that having a pro ­free education policy would have “no realistic prospect” and would harm the lobbying of MPs, “as it is not a credible position in the current economic and political situation.”

Thankfully this motion was heavily defeated at the AGM – it appeared to be a roughly 9 ­to ­1 rejection.

After a few weeks of internal discussion, we decided to try again, and make sure that the second petition presented would be an improvement on our admittedly sloppy first attempt. Over two hours of the lunchtime of December 4, we collected just short of 400 signatures. This was presented to TUSU, who responded with their opinion that taking a pro-­free education policy would be illegal.

Discussions between TUSU and the law firm they brought in to advise them dragged on into January. As dealing with our student union had been a frustrating experience, while we waited for discussions to reach a conclusion, we decided to go for an easy win, and set up a General Election debate for the end of January. This would be the first of the Student Assembly Against Austerity’s national tour of election ­themed debates.

A range of political speakers were booked, and the necessary paperwork for external speakers was filed with the university the required two weeks before the event. Everything was in place, and the student union would have nothing to do with the debate. Then the student union cancelled it.

TUSU sent an email to the room bookings department of the university, instructing them to cancel the booking – which a member of university staff did before realising that TUSU don’t have the authority to make that order.

It was then claimed that paperwork hadn’t been filed in time for background checks to be carried out on external speakers (it had been filed the full two weeks before the debate that university guidelines require). We were then told that the debate would breach Charity Commission rules. The argument was that because the Liberal Democrats and UKIP were not represented (we’d tried to reach out but couldn’t make contact) the debate would be politically unbalanced.

Durham University hosted a debate with a similar party ­political make up to ours in early February, while Teesside University’s Unison branch invited a Labour Parliamentary candidate, Louise Baldock, to speak about her union experiences. As a Green Party member, and the Election Agent of our candidate standing against Louise, I don’t have a problem with this – but it’s surely more politically biased than our proposed debate.

Needless to say, we believe that TUSU made the political choice to take an ultra­cautious interpretation of the law, which doesn’t seem to have been enacted anywhere else in the country.

With the conflict between TUSU and ourselves causing a bit of commotion, TUSU emailed their side of the story to the students on the official mailing list, but didn’t reply to our request that our interpretation of events be shared in the same way.

Eventually the debate went ahead in a local working man’s club – we’re very grateful to the Westgarth for beingwilling to host us at such short notice.

Shortly before the debate, after completing their discussions with Stone King (“probably the best education firm in the business” according to their website), Teesside Free Education Campaign were informed that the General Meeting could go ahead, but that the board of trustees (four elected officers, four external appointees, two students interviewed and recommended by the TUSU Chief Executive) would override any vote in favour of free education at their next meeting.

At this point we were presented with what we were told was legal advice,

but there hasn’t been a clear explanation of how closely this internal briefing document represents the firm’s advice, or whether TUSU have selectively chosen the parts that overlap with what they’d decided in December.

Although the meeting was mentioned on TUSU’s facebook page (only that there was a motion to be debated, and TUSU had legal objections to it), other than a mention buried deep in the email about the social media conflict, they refused to send emails promoting the debate to the 10,000 student mailing list. We were told that this was because TUSU didn’t want to bombard students with too many messages.

Admittedly, we could have done more to promote the event ourselves, and in retrospect should have. But we’d been assuming that an email would be sent round to inform students of the vote that was taking place in their name.

Unsurprisingly, the General Meeting failed to get the required numbers and was rearranged, but still no promotional email was sent round.

The second meeting also failed to attract the hundred members needed ­ with less than thirty members present, the President declared the meeting quorate, and the motion passed by 14 votes to 8.

Despite it being, however temporarily, TUSU policy to support free education, they don’t seem to have promoted this in any way. The policy has since been cancelled by the Board of Trustees. TFEC’s focus then shifted to April’s Officer and NUS Delegate elections. We stood candidates for three of the four officer positions, and two of the four candidates for NUS Delegate (running for four places in a not­ so-tightly contested race) were part of the TFEC.

Election rules limit campaigning to a two­week period, with voting taking place in the second week. In the weeks leading up to the campaigning period, candidates and their representatives are permitted to discuss their candidacy on private social media (such as closed Facebook groups) but not open social media (such as their own Facebook profiles). Before the campaigning period began, a clip from the campaign video of our candidate for President, Matthew Pickles, was shared on Snapchat by his campaign manager, Hannah Graham, and he was given an official warning as a result.

Maybe you’ll have spotted the issue here – Snapchat photos and videos are only viewable to friends of the sender. It’s an understandable double­standard over a new piece of software, but Matthew Pickles was now one offence away from disqualification.

Part of the campaign is a candidates’ debate event, which takes place on the Friday halfway through the campaigning fortnight, three days before voting opens. One of Matthew Pickles’ answers was that “I’m a strong believer in free education so I’d campaign for free education”.

This was judged to be a party political statement. As Hannah Graham was the Green Party candidate in the local constituency and free education was one of the party’s policies, speaking in favour of the policy was a party political statement, and grounds for him to be suspended from campaigning.

The NUS overturned TUSU’s decision on appeal, but in the 48 hours or so it took for them to reach this decision, Matthew Pickles wasn’t allowed to campaign, and finished third of seven candidates in the final count.

The winner of the Presidential contest, Ashley Mehnert, was an excellent candidate, so there’s a more than decent chance she’ll have won regardless. Still, it rankles that our most prominent candidate was prevented from running a full campaign on two flimsy ‘breaches’ of the rules.

A few weeks after the student elections, a planned screening of the film Tory Boy, made by the 2010 Tory candidate for Middlesbrough about his experience standing in the area was cancelled, despite having been screened at schools and colleges up and down the country without controversy.

It’s easy to see why, in their NUS newsletter, NCAFC awarded TUSU the ‘Porter Award’ for worst student union in the country. Still, it’s nice to know that their ultra­-cautious interpretation of the law isn’t anything personal against us.

A consistent theme across the year has been that because there was no prospect of the policy being enacted within the study time of current students, TUSU wouldn’t be acting in the student body’s interests by pursuing such a policy. Their view seemed to be that students must choose from a buffet being offered by the major parties when articulating our demands, rather than setting our own, and being allowed to be ambitious and look to the long­ term if we so wish.

Another objection was that none of the four officers were elected on a platform that included free education, and so none had a mandate to devote their time to the cause. (Perhaps deliberately ignoring the fact that the aim of bringing a free education motion was to give them this mandate, and we made no demand that the officers themselves devote time to the campaign.)

The 2014 Lobbying Act is the relevant part of charity law that has TUSU scared, and it’s a controversial law on a national scale, largely because of how badly written and open to interpretation it is. But TUSU have adopted the most extreme end of a wide range of positions they could have taken, and seem to be under the impression that the choice they made wasn’t a choice at all.

Student union officers will tend to be in their early twenties, and almost certainly in a position of far greater responsibility and complexity than they’ve held in the past – as a result they’re reliant on the advice they’re given by people who’ve got decades more experience than they do – from the broader student movement; university employees; their own support staff; external law firms.

In many other areas TUSU have been outstanding ­ the officers and staff of TUSU have displayed weird legal opinions and organisational incompetence which hasn’t been on display in other areas of their work this past year. It stands to reason that the quality of advice they’ve been given is one of the differentiating factors. Will Ridley and Ryan Marshall, the recently departed President and Education Officer, have been our primary antagonists this past year ­ on a personal level, I like them both, and I’ve not seen anything from either of them to suggest that they’re anything but really good guys. And they have been outstanding in other areas of their job – TUSU has just been awarded ‘Best One­ Off Event’ at the national SU Events Forum Awards.

Our point of view is that the officers have been incredibly badly advised when it comes to charity law, being afraid of something that hasn’t happened anywhere else. The Charity Commission has harassed several other student unions, but gone away unable to do anything beyond rattle cages.

There’s a lot of money to be made from tuition fees. Already Chancellors’ pay packets have risen dramatically; debt collection administration is booming; as the national clampdown on dissent increases, the economic value of legal advice will grow; in America there’s a lot of colleges where more money is spent on advertising than on teachers’ salaries. The desire to make money will probably influence the type of advice given to SU officers.

Up and down the country, newly elected student officers will be taking office this month, and at least a few of them will end up receiving the same dodgy legal advice that our officers have received. The Lobbying Act is widely agreed to be a badly written legal document, which gives a wide range of legitimate interpretations. The worst part is that TUSU, in making the political choice to adopt the most restrictive of possible interpretations, don’t seem to realise that they’ve made a political choice.

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