In the final stage of a year-long review of its governance and democratic processes, Durham Students’ Union plans to hold a campus-wide referendum in Easter Term. The referendum will ask students to accept or reject a new model of democracy.
The DSU plans to spend up to £7,000 on a “democracy review”. Plans seen by Palatinate show that this includes £5,000, not including expenses, which will be spent on consultancy firm MiraGold, which will carry out the review to “inform the co-creation by students and the Students’ Union of new democratic structures, and the removal of old ones that aren’t fit for purpose” and to rebuild “trust and partnership with the student body”.
A further £1,500 has also been budgeted to pay a student re- searcher and ten student ambassadors. The researcher will receive £750 to conduct focus group consultations with Durham students and deliver analysis on student consultation data, and ambassadors will “promote the various student consultation methods across the student body”. £150 has been allocated for expenses for these roles.
This comes after the DSU spent £2,000 on an initial review of democracy last year, called a “democracy health check”, also conducted through MiraGold. Durham SU was criticised for the limited number of people who contributed to the process. In response to the criticism, the SU said that “scoping internal capacity as the first step on the journey was the sensible thing to do”.
The DSU, which received a block grant of £880,000 from the university for 2020/21, has had to make cuts in its budget due to losses incurred by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Several SU staff members have been put on furlough and there has been reduced funding for student groups, including Palatinate, who have been told that there is “no budget for a print edition” for Michaelmas term.
In February, elections were held for several positions, in which 58% of total votes cast were for Re-Open Nominations (RON). The SU subsequently decided to disqualify RON for campaign rules violations, and all these votes were subsequently deleted, including second and third preferences.
The democracy review will be conducted through a mass survey to gauge student views on “the purposes and priorities of democracy”, with over 1000 participants expected. Palatinate understands that of the 30 questions, none will mention RON or its disqualification explicitly, on the basis that the intention is to “design a system for the future”.
The changes must first be backed by a referendum, then would go to the University Secretary’s Office (USO) or to the Board for a formal sign-off.
Speaking about the democracy review at the recent SU Assembly, Anna Marshall, Durham SU Opportunities Officer, said: “I see this as changing the entire way the SU functions. However, the truth is, we are changing the way that decisions are made within the SU and the ways that students are represented. This touches on elections, this touches on committees, this touches strongly on Assembly.
“In the long term it will affect the entire way the SU works, but in the short term this means that we are actually only looking at implementing changes to governance.
“So we’re looking at the student voice and how that can be represented. I believe that’s going to have huge repercussions”.
Admitting that the review will be “a long process”, she continued: “This is the reason why I accepted this role and came to this role, to try and change the way that Durham SU works”.
One Assembly member told Palatinate: “One of the Students’ Union’s biggest flaws is its failure to admit that it has made mistakes.
“For the democracy review to be effective, the SU needs to acknowledge that it has failed the majority of students who voted in March. Period. Without this admission, and a constant refusal to engage with people who voted RON, this £7k democracy review is just the SU throwing money at the wall and hoping something sticks.
“There does seem to be a general belief among those running this that students who have a negative view of the SU are simply misinformed”.
In the document, the Students’ Union laid out the reasoning behind the review, saying that the February elections saw “student dissatisfaction and confusion about SU democratic structures”.
It later wrote: “There is deep concern that election rules and campaigns based on democratic principles were weaponised as vehicles for racism in the most recent cross-campus elections.
“Candidates were harassed, vilified and bullied in this election more than ever before – which coincided with more students of colour and international students running for election than ever before.”
None of the documents explicitly mention or extensively discuss RON, or the disqualification of the majority of ballots after the election.
Asked about the money being spent on the review, and why MiraGold was chosen, Anna Marshall told Palatinate: “The Democracy Review is a full-scale assessment, which aims to get a representative sample of Durham students to share their perspective on the representation and governance of Durham SU.
“We want this to give us reliable, concrete evidence which we can use to redesign the structure of our Union to ensure we are as democratic as possible.
“I used to have a misconception of democracy as a simple thing – but if you think about how the UK parliament operates, it is very different to how the US senate operates. Even amongst the common rooms of Durham, there is a huge variation in governance structures.
“The key things we’re trying to weigh up are transparency, popular control, inclusivity, considered judgement and efficiency – and so before we’re able to create reform, I want to know what balance of these democratic goods students want to have. That’s not something I should decide.
“MiraGold have been asked to run this review, through a survey and then a series of focus groups, to deliver a reliable assessment of this.
“I’m glad the Student Union are choosing to prioritise moneyon democracy, because if we’re not going to do a good job of it, there’s no point doing it at all. With reliable representation and governance, everything else follows suit.”
Anna Marshall also explained that the interviewing panel for the democracy review consisted of herself and three students. The students were selected without a formal application process.
“We received applications from multiple companies but believe MiraGold is the best in the field. The democracy health check in January had a much smaller scope and this democracy review will be far more comprehensive and in-depth.
“We want this review to deliver reliable, representative results that are as bias-free as possible. An external company offers the expertise and insight which this review deserves. There would be no point in doing this half-heartedly.
“Where possible, we have tried to use internal talent. We are hiring a part-time paid student researcher and 10 brand ambassadors who will be able to gain quality work experience from working alongside MiraGold.
“Opportunities for part-time jobs and work experience are both significantly reduced this year due to COVID-19 so I wanted to do what we could to offset that, whilst also making sure this was as Durham-focussed as possible.”
Image: Amana Moore