By Atree, Save Our Sugarhouse campaign
In September, a leak alerted us that our student union’s Trustee Board had decided to start discussions about selling off our student club, the Sugarhouse. This has happened because the Trustee Board, which holds most of the decision-making power in our SU, was made up of six unelected, external members and six elected students. There isn’t a majority of elected students to ensure decisions made are in students’ interests – like making sure we still have somewhere affordable to drink, that’s also safe for all students, in fact the second safest in the country!
One of the reasons cited was that students nowadays are drinking less – but they didn’t even ask us! Personally I think it’s less that students are drinking less, and more that we’re just seeking cheaper sources and drinking at home instead. It’s rising bar prices, not lack of interest, that get in the way of these venues making money. All of the college bars used to be owned and run by and for students directly – prices were a third of what they are now, and they were always packed. Now they are just too expensive.
Another big issue is that the 50+ staff who work at the club (who are almost all students) haven’t been told what will happen to their jobs if the nightclub is sold. They weren’t even the first people to find out about the potential sale.
Just before the start of term Jack, who is a Lancaster student and a Labour city councillor, submitted a petition on the student union website to save the nightclub. This quickly got around 1000 signatures, which meant it could go to a referendum. I put forward a petition to make the trustee board majority elected, which got about 240 signatures. The student union executive committee decided that this should go to a referendum too.
We focused on campaigning as hard as we could on social media and across student groups for everyone to come to the AGM and vote in favour of keeping the club open, and democratising the student union so decisions like this don’t happen again. We knew we had to meet quorum for the votes to be valid – which was set at 473.
Even though the student union didn’t make posters or really do any offline publicity for the AGM, people turned out and spread the word themselves.
Over 1000 students voted in the AGM on Monday 28 October- close to 10% of the student population. It was the highest turnout ever for a general meeting, and the first time we’ve hit quorum in five years. The last time couple of times this happened was when tuition fees were tripled to £9000 in 2010, and when a department was being shut down. The university only has one venue that could accommodate hitting quorum in one room!
The AGM failed to completely prevent the sale of Sugarhouse – but we mandated the SU officers to have a stance, and called for a fully-elected Trustee Board so something like this doesn’t happen again in the future. Lots of other motions passed too- including calling for the university to restore its democratic structures, declaring a climate emergency, demanding the university divests from fossil fuels and the arms trade, and supporting affordable housing and Rent Strike.
But we haven’t won yet – three referendums will begin in a couple of weeks on ensuring discussions ends now about selling our nightclub, and on having a majority-elected Trustee Board, as well as a vote of no confidence against an elected officer who has repeatedly voted against student interest. And even if we win the referendums, we can’t be sure we’ve saved Sugarhouse. Student union charity law means that referendums are not legally binding: we will need to continue the fight to make sure that the student union implements the decision students make, and we’ll need the help of students at other universities to help us pile on the pressure.
On the back of the threat to our nightclub it’s become obvious why student union democracy is so important and why it’s a problem. People are realising that this time round it’s just a club- but what could it be next time? As long as we have unelected, non-students trustees calling the shots, any referendum result could be overturned, and any decision could be made that puts money over our interests as students.
Inside the student union, a certain extent of political decisions are made by operational staff, not the full time officers that were elected to do that job. The Trustee Board is almost entirely unaccountable as a body. If a student feels hard done by a decision it’s made, there are real no steps for scrutiny besides starting a campaign. Until the day of the AGM, students on the Trustee Board were bound by an embargo to be silent about their personal opinions on the sale of Sugar. They were told that if they disagreed with the decision, they “could resign.” The elected minority on the committee can’t even stand up for students. It all goes back to charity law- we need to campaign for the government to repeal it so that student unions can be run by and for students, the people they are meant to represent.
Students at other universities should be proactive. Look at your SU bylaws and structures – have the people making the decisions been elected? Are they accountable? If they aren’t, then go and campaign to make that change before they make a decision against your interests. When that happens, it’s a lot harder to reverse.