As the next set of LUSU sabbatical officers are set to be elected, Spineless looks at recent months' events related to the appointment of student trustees, and what they show us about how the LUSU establishment seeks to control and undermine student democracy. We have identified three key strands running through LUSU tactics in the last year: intimidation of elected officers, legal advice to suppress students, and Graeme Osborn's infallible wisdom.
Intimidation of elected officers
When a first-year Executive Committee member comes into direct conflict with the £60k-per-year LUSU CEO, nine times out of ten the CEO will win, whether or not they are right. What has been revealing from the past two Executive Committee livestreams (available on the LUSU Facebook page) are the significant interventions from LUSU CEO Misbah Ashraf and also the critical role of Education and Support Manager Chris Cottam. LUSU is supposedly an organisation that devolves politics and policy to its elected officers and yet senior staff repeatedly intervene in the democratic processes - shouldn't student-run committees be... run by students?
Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in the Sugarhouse Scandal. An exposé published by SCAN in November 2019 revealed the significant role that had been played by former LUSU CEO Claire Geddes, now the University's Head of Governance. She had frequently made representations to University committees on the matter and worked closely with senior University managers such as Paul Morris and Andrew Burgess to push through the sale.
In this equation, it is clear that the sabbatical officers were seen as a nuisance and an obstacle to achieving what LUSU staff had already decided was a fantastic idea. The original plan was to only announce the sale after planning permission was applied for, not allowing students any say at all. It was only after the plan was leaked to the press in September 2019 that students became aware.
As with the Sugarhouse Scandal, the student trustee saga shows that LUSU staff are nowhere near as neutral as they should be.
Legal advice to suppress students
Perhaps the most insidious part of the student trustee saga was the involvement of 'legal advice' that students were not allowed to see or scrutinise. Advice, even when it comes from LUSU's solicitors, remains just that - advice.
The last time legal advice was employed by LUSU management to crush dissent was during the AGM, when a motion proposed by sabbatical officers to introduce greater accountability to the CEO was removed before the AGM took place on the grounds of 'legal advice'. Students have yet to hear what exactly this legal advice said, over 100 days after the (first part of the) AGM concluded.
Charity law and its intersection with education law is not straightforward and student members have a right to know what advice is being handed to elected officers. Divine wisdom does not lie with Graeme Osborn, Misbah Ashraf, or even LUSU's solicitors. Sometimes, they get it wrong, and as with the Sugarhouse Scandal, they can get it wrong on a big scale to the detriment of every student.
How much is all this legal advice over democratic decisions costing LUSU, anyway? No money for things like student media or Grad Ball, plenty of money to tell elected officers that they can't vote a certain way.
Graeme Osborn's infallible wisdom
Those in attendance at the LUSU AGM in October 2019 had a rollercoaster introduction to Trustee Board vice-chair Graeme Osborn. At the time, he was steadfast and clearly present to trot out the LUSU management line: 'The Sugarhouse has to be sold.' His other interventions, claiming he doesn't care what happens to the site after it is sold, and that it is impossible to mandate trustees, were shocking in their callousness as students gave heartfelt testimony.
A student petition launched last month, calling for a Vote of No Confidence in Mr Osborn, pointed out where his words in the AGM and actions as a Trustee directly contradicted Charity Commission guidance. In particular, the rules over conflicts of interest and over whether a students' union can have binding referendums were ignored by Mr Osborn, meaning his harsh wisdom in the AGM was little more than misleading intimidation.
Yet again, the recent saga of student trustees saw a direct intervention from the Trustee Board vice-chair. If he wants to interfere with the democratic processes of LUSU (such as there are any left), he should expect to be treated like a student officer himself. His intervention, which claimed that refusing to appoint student trustee vacancies violated both the Articles of Association and Charity Commission rules, may have been accurate but he refused to cite which ones. He claimed that LUSU was at 'risk of censure' and a 'financial penalty', without providing any evidence to support the claims.
How are students to trust the one Trustee who has repeatedly acted against their interests? Why should we take his word for it when he won't even provide the evidence to back up his claims?
Spineless ponders when the 'student-led' Students' Union will start to take democracy seriously. We aren't holding our breath.