Postgraduate students have been left uncertain about the future of their representation following a fall out between the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) and the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS).
Over the past few months the GSA and UUEAS have held discussions on whether the two entities should join together in one body, and if so how this would work. However, the committee of the GSA announced last week that it will be withdrawing from discussions about holding a referendum regarding a merger between the GSA and UUEAS. The GSA has also said that unless its demands are met, it will urge postgraduates to reject the proposed merger come the planned referendum.
The GSA committee claims that their views have not been listened to and that no details have been agreed on what would happen after such a merger. However, UUEAS has rejected these assertions and has pointed out that the referendum is not binding.
Despite the GSA withdrawing from the discussions, UUEAS has announced that the referendum will take place from Monday 16th February to Thursday 19th February. Voting will be online at ueastudent.com, and will be open from 09:00 to 16:00 each day in Union House.
The GSA is a separate organisation to UUEAS. This is because the GSA believes that: “Having a separate organisation to represent [postgraduate] interests and needs ensures that graduate issues do not get overlooked”. However in spite this, both organisations have worked closely together in the past to ensure the concerns of postgraduates are represented and acted upon.
The proposed merger was championed by Postgraduate Education Officer, Liam McCafferty, and former GSA President Oliver Steward. Steward, who resigned last month, has since commented that: “on a personal level I felt I could not carry on the role of GSA President due to institutional differences within the GSA”.
Steward’s involvement and support for the merger has been an issue of controversy given that he was elected on the promise to keep the GSA independent. Speaking to Concrete last October on why he went against his election promise, he said: “I have had to change my mind, based on the realities of the situation. The GSA cannot remain an autonomous student representative body as we do not have the funds and resources to do so”.
The referendum process begun in October, when Union Council mandated the student union to hold a referendum on merging the two organisations. As Concrete reports today, postgraduates make up fewer than 10% of Union Council, so the GSA was included in a working group to decide on the details of the referendum. The working group included Postgraduate Education Officer Liam McCafferty, Campaigns & Democracy Officer Chris Jarvis, new GSA President David Hall and Mature Students’ Officer John Taylor.
However, the working group’s discussions have stretched over months, with McCafferty claiming in a Student Officer Committee meeting that there was no consensus amongst the members of the working group on whether there should even be a referendum. The working group did produce some initial proposals for referendum rules and timetables, and these were approved by the student officers late last month.
In a statement emailed to all postgraduate students, the GSA committee criticised the “manner in which the referendum process has been handled” by UUEAS.
They went on to say: “Our repeated requests for clarity and information about the union’s proposals […] were considered not to be relevant, and were either brushed aside or only reluctantly discussed.
“To this point we still have no idea, and consequently can’t tell the students we represent, what the future of the GSA will look like if the referendum goes ahead and a vote to become part of the union is recorded […] If the union decides to go ahead with the referendum anyway, we would urge you to vote not to become part of the union”.
The GSA cited that they had withdrawn from the referendum process “on advice from the Dean of Students”. However, they would be happy to re-engage with the process “providing [they] are treated fairly and are given a genuine say” and asked for UUEAS to agree on a clear proposed structure for how a merged GSA would work before putting it to referendum.
When asked about the Dean of Students’ (DoS) involvement in the decision, a university spokesperson said that DoS “will not be drawn into political disputes”.
McCafferty said: “Following years of under delivery for postgrads and a year of engaging with students about improvements they want, the union’s council approved an exciting new vision for postgrads last term that includes a new programme of postgraduate focussed activities, a sector leading Graduate Centre with Café Bar, Lounge and bookable space, and a new rep council designed to ensure the postgraduate voice is effectively represented.
“As part of that we were mandated to ask postgraduate students, in an indicative referendum, whether they were happy to see the old GSA merge into the union.
“We failed to reach agreement on the precise format of that poll but that won’t stop us running the poll and delivering on the promises we’ve made to Grad Students at UEA”.
The referendum will ask postgraduate students the following question: ‘Should the Graduate Students Association become an autonomous part of the Union of UEA Students?’ Eligible voters will have the option to vote for, against or abstain.