Durham SU criticised for handling of Student Staff Consultative Committees

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Durham Students’ Union (Durham SU) has been criticised for its handling of Student Staff Consultative Committees (SSCC). This has prompted wider questioning of the Durham SU-led SSCC election process, concerns about ineffective communication, and, most recently, the issuing of an ultimatum by the University Education Committee.

Student Staff Consultative Committees, whose purpose is “to facilitate an effective dialogue between the student body and their respective departments, regarding the educational experience provided by Durham University,” consist of two Course Reps per undergraduate subject and level (Levels 1, 2, 3, 4), chosen by peers in elections organised by Durham SU.

In previous years, individual departments were responsible for the appointment of students to SSCCs, before responsibility was shifted to Durham SU in 2013 order to make the process more democratic and inclusive. As part of the application, students wishing to run for election to SSCCs are required to write a manifesto that explains why they should be elected.

As a result of a number of Course Rep positions not being filled in elections at the end of the last academic year and the beginning of this academic year, Palatinate has learned that the University Education Committee issued an ultimatum to Durham SU that would give individual department SSCCs the ability to elect representatives unless all positions were filled by Wednesday 4th November 2015.

The University Education Committee discussed the ultimatum in a meeting held on 28th October 2015, where the meeting’s minutes note that “the Students’ Union welcomed the opportunity to continue electing student representatives in lectures to fill the remaining positions.

“The committee noted that it would be appropriate to review the position after the conclusion of the elections, noting that should any unfilled positions remain, the student co-chair and academic co-chair would be required to recruit students to these positions.”

The University confirmed this in a statement to Palatinate: “The Students’ Union provided an update to the Education Committee on the number of Student Staff Consultative Committee (SSCC) representative positions which had not been filled by November 2015.

“Having discussed the issue with the Students’ Union, the Education Committee agreed that, if positions remained unfilled following the conclusion of the Union’s election cycle, the student co-chair and academic co-chairs of individual SSCCs should be empowered to elect students to those positions themselves.”

Stuart Goldie, a fourth-year Chemistry student and co-chair of the Chemistry department’s SSCC, spoke to Palatinate about the Durham SU’s election process, stating: “With regards to moving into next year, the Durham SU either needs to come up with a bloody good, clear plan for how they are going to effectively fill all (>98%) positions in a timely manner without causing inconvenience to either staff or current standing reps before the staff review next term, or else accept that departments can run elections more effectively than they can.

[blockquote author=”Stuart Goldie” pull=”normal”]“Frankly they’re not going to achieve that so, realistically, it would be better for all concerned if the departments did run the elections (after all, they know how many reps for each course works best) [/blockquote]

“Frankly they’re not going to achieve that so, realistically, it would be better for all concerned if the departments did run the elections (after all, they know how many reps for each course works best), and the Durham SU works hard on fixing its horrendous record at communication and organisation so it can work with the departments and elected department reps to build a strong faculty wide network for student voice that wouldn’t interfere with the existing SSCCs,” Goldie stated.

“In that way, there would be a mechanism in place to support students and apply pressure to departments that are not sourcing suitable candidates, but simply the quietest students.”

Palatinate obtained a copy of unconfirmed meeting minutes from an SSCC where concerns were raised surrounding the Durham SU’s election process and communication with standing candidates. In one instance, it was reported that a candidate had not put forward an application for election, but was later informed that they had been elected.

The same document also notes that the majority of students tend not to interact with the Durham SU, instead preferring to interact directly with the department.

It has also been claimed by an anonymous member of University teaching staff that the Durham SU saw the role of a Course Rep as being much wider than an SSCC representative, with claims that SSCC participation was initially not included in the Course Rep job description.

In a statement to Palatinate, Ben Frost, Academic Affairs Officer for Durham SU, said: “We are working closely with the University to create an effective academic representation system. Of the utmost importance is creating a representative system where all students have the opportunity to feedback on their academic experience.

“Integral to this are democratic elections where students vote on who represents them, as opposed to a selective system where departments select representatives. This ensures representatives are independent of the University and accountable to students.

[blockquote author=”Ben Frost, Academic Affairs Officer” pull=”pull right”] Where departments have worked closely with us we have successfully elected representatives to posts. We are now working closely with departments to elect representatives into the few remaining vacancies.[/blockquote]

“Where departments have worked closely with us we have successfully elected representatives to posts. We are now working closely with departments to elect representatives into the few remaining vacancies.

“We have improved the training this year following feedback from last year’s participants. We are holding additional training sessions to ensure all students are able to participate,” Frost concluded.

An anonymous student who sits on a SSCC in the Faculty of Science told Palatinate: “Communication from Ben Frost on SSCC reps has been poor all term. I know the problems aren’t all caused by him, but when it came to letting us know whether or not we’re reps and when the training is, he has been consistently bad. His job is to keep us in the loop and he is not fulfilling that role.”

The University confirmed to Palatinate that the “Education Committee and the Students’ Union will undertake a joint review of the operation of the SSCC election process by January 2016.”

Photograph: Durham Students’ Union

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