Last week, the final Academic Assembly of the year was held. It was quite an important meeting that determined the policy direction for the whole of next year. Stalwart Yusucrat Graeme Osborn presented his key aims and painted us a picture of the academic priorities for his second sabbatical term as Academic Officer – priorities that, if realised, should have a significant positive impact on our academic experience.
Yet despite Osborn’s engagingly dulcet tones, and the gravitas of the meeting itself, there were only 14 of us there to vote. As we sat in a non-descript Langwith seminar room, gathered in a circle of plastic chairs, it occurred to me that the meeting’s acronym ‘AA’ was rather fitting.
A recent YUSU strategy document outlined how the union would benefit from a sense of direction. In an impressively frank analysis of the policy formation process it described the mish-mash of policies, piled one on top of another, which form the current mandate “without any distinction or priority”. It goes on to recommend the four assemblies (Academic, Community, Liberation & Welfare, Student Development) to actually set themselves a strategic agenda for the coming year, and to prioritise key policies. Another integral point it advises is the creation policy documents that people actually want to read. That means candour and clarity, not waffle and confustication.
Committee-speak is the plague of any public organisation
I think this is extremely important, not necessarily for the tangible benefits to policy, but for opening up our students’ union. The union often has a hard time getting anyone to actually care about what it does or says. A more hard-boiled cynic than I might say that is because it does nothing worth caring about.
But I don’t think that is true. It’s just that the meaningful policy that is passing through our assemblies and networks all the time is buried under a thick, drab layer of words: the committee-speak that is the plague of any public organisation, from a parish council to the UN. Dull procedure and opaque documentation is a major disincentive for the average union member, and is probably a large part of the reason for low turnouts and turn-ups to important, useful meetings that do bring real change for students.
The handover process for the new officers began last week. I am hopeful that the new team will take on this clear, vision-based approach to policy. It might not have much to do with the actual administration, but it gives us students something to hold on to and rally around; something to understand and interact with, that might just stimulate some participation.
Which brings us back to Osborn. He seems to have wholeheartedly embraced this ‘policy with a direction’ idea. Each of his eight proposals at the final Academic Assembly was summed up succinctly but clearly, with enough detail for us to comprehend and engage with. Even I, stumbling into the democratic process with the all wonderment of a newborn babe, felt I understood it all as he led me by the hand into Yusucratic enlightenment.
Going into his second term, Osborn has had the advantage of being able to take the long view, and perhaps that is why his policy seems more coherent. It is of course necessary to have the ability to kick out a poorly performing officer after a year, but sometimes a two-term officer can make the best progress. Regardless of whether that has made his administration more effective or not, it has certainly made it easier to engage with. The ‘you run us’ slogan is one that, in YUSU’s academic policy, can actually be realised.
So I urge you too to go to the meetings next year, the assemblies, the AGMs, and see if you can get a handle on it. With the new, clear approach it’s a lot easier and more rewarding a process – you can understand the issues without prior preparation, and have a real impact on your union and its policy for you. It doesn’t have to be dreary either. Take a light-hearted, playful approach. Bring some mates.
Bring some beers too – though if you do, make sure you get the right ‘AA’ meeting.