Politics gone awry at the University of Birmingham

For those who have been on Facebook since the semester began at the University of Birmingham earlier this week, the vast majority of people’s news feeds have been clogged with various scandals concerning the Sabbatical Officer team. I would like to make clear at this point that I am not friends with either Mark Harrop, the Guild President, or Edd Bauer, the Vice President of Education, and thus feel able to give an unbiased account of sentiments I believe apply to many of us who have no strong political allegiance on campus. I should also add that everything I report below is true to the best of my knowledge.

News broke recently that a student here is facing disciplinary action after being named by Harrop in a witness statement giving details about the occupation of a university building in November. The sit-in, which was orchestrated by members of NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts), took place between 23rd and 25th November, and was attended, in part at least, by over fifty students. The university took heavy handed action in trying to stop the process, hiring a team of security guards to man the premises and stop people entering or leaving North Gate House, and have subsequently have taken out an injunction against those involved.

There is far more to this story than I will discuss here, but what I want to focus on is the way in which the Sabbatical team has dealt with what has happened. It is certainly no secret that people are often voted into power on campus based on the sheer volume of voters from their political societies, and this, as far as I am aware, has not caused rifts within those in charge in the past. But the 2011-2012 team have been riddled with debacle upon debacle since freshers week, and whilst they have also achieved many commendable things thus far, this has been greatly overshadowed by various controversies.

After Edd Bauer was suspended last semester after being charged with causing danger to road users outside the Liberal Democrat conference in September, the apparent lack of support from his team signalled that all was not well within the presidential camp. And this view, which, I might add, does nothing to reassure those of us who voted for these people in the first place, has been made overwhelmingly evident by the various slanging matches that have occurred over social media networks over the past few months.

With Bauer now reinstated, it would have been naïve to think that the team could work together like one happy family, but the image they project to the impartial observer is one of great disharmony. The amount of ‘sharing’ of links detailing the events that have taken place until now has undoubtedly perpetuated the inordinate levels of campus gossip surrounding these issues, and certain things have come to my attention this week that I have found highly unprofessional.

In a sense, I agree that Harrop’s witness statement should have been made public, as the pressure put upon him to address and explain many of the points in it would not have happened otherwise. He is certainly at fault for a number of reasons, but his latest note, in which he explains the questions levelled at him in detail, has slightly improved this situation. His statement is no longer being used in the disciplinary against the student protester here, and that is, to my mind, an example of the kind of positive outcome students working together for the sake of something they believe in can achieve.

What I do not agree with is the incessant posting on Facebook from multiple members of the Sabbatical team, publicly discussing issues that should be resolved in private between them.  All it does is reaffirm the opinion of many of us on campus that they are spending too much time criticising one another via social media sites and not doing the jobs that they are actually paid to do. In addition to this, two blogs written by Bauer this week have noted that Harrop is a conservative – something I deem an unnecessary addition and clearly cheap shot to try and demean his credibility amongst liberal students. I personally am not a conservative, but have no objection to the political leanings of anyone on the Sabbatical officer team. What I do take issue with, however, is people publicly criticising someone for these leanings, and this adds to the mob mentality I believe that certain people associated with the broad left are perpetuating. The situation has become such that people who disagree with their actions are accused of being conservative, and I do not think this is either fair or accurate.

Further to this, a blog was posted by Bauer criticising the trustee board’s decision to hold a meeting at an expensive restaurant in Birmingham. Whilst it is admirable that he continues to show his activism for students’ interests, posting this letter on Facebook is something I again find to be a cheap shot and attempt at undermining both the Guild of Students and the university. To post it on his officer blog, where people actually interested in Guild politics would take the time to check, is fine, but doing so in an arena which is used as a social medium is quite obviously going to stir trouble from many who would never normally pay attention. As has been shown by various events in the news over the past few weeks, the public love nothing more than to be outraged by something they had little or no interest in in the first place, and this, coupled with the further Facebook slanging that ensued afterwards, was in my opinion not worth it for something that would have cost each student just over one pence apiece. Yes, if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything, but equally, you have to know when to pick your battles in life, and sometimes the backlash is simply not worth it. Issues I, and I know my peers deem to be important, are things like why we pay £3k per year for a degree that affords us four weekly contact hours and yet we still have to pay additional costs for the lecturer’s photocopies. This kind of problem, which affects a huge number of us and is costing thousands of pounds, is more important to me than if a trustee board has one nice meal in the space of a year.

It is a sad state of affairs when people feel so let down by their elected President that they feel compelled to make a vote of no confidence against him, and the upcoming Guild Council meeting will show exactly where allegiances lie. Sadly, it seems as though there a few impartial voices now left in Guild politics, and ultimately the decision will reflect whether there are more people who are Team Bauer or Team Harrop at the meeting. But what is most important, regardless of the outcome of that meeting, is that the team stop using their official Facebook accounts as a place for personal comments about contentious situations and focus on working together, for the sake of not only themselves, but the students they are supposed to be representing.

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2 thoughts on “Politics gone awry at the University of Birmingham

  1. Jon Robinson says:

    Generally I’m not going to dispute this; a quick look at the Better Guild Forum makes the Guild look like a battleground for warring tribes. The only bit I don’t agree about is your criticism of Ed’s decision to publicly criticise the Bar Epernay meal – this doesn’t undermine the Guild itself, it undermines the 14 person Trustee Board, only 3 of which are current UoB students.

  2. Ben Aylott says:

    As one of the petitioners I resent being described as being a member of ‘Team Bauer’ or part of a faction. I agree with you that the bickering going on between Officers on public forums is quite unpleasant and unneccessary. And your assessment that its down to Eds suspension sounds spot on.

    The issue with Mark is mainly about ‘is it correct that a student union president gave a statement to what looks like a politicised disciplinary?’ and ‘if not, how serious is this?’.

    The petition has widened the debate about Mark’s conduct, that was the point. Now students get to have a say about it via Guild Council. Otherwise it would be confined to the Guild gossip columns and Facebook groups.

    Imagine how much quicker, simpler, and less disruptive it would have been if instead of suspending Ed last term we had taken the matter to Guild Council and asked them what they (and their constituents by proxy) thought about his conduct. Sure it would have been stressful to be subject to a VONC, but compared to the 3 month suspension and uncertainty over the process it would have been nothing.

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