I’ve recently been Tweeting at Kenny Budd, the current VP for Student Activities at Kent University. I suggested that some improvements could be made to the way the Union handles its societies and he proposed that I drop him an e-mail or meet up with him.
In order to keep it an open discussion I thought I would post my thoughts here to allow Kenny and others to contribute their thoughts and ideas in a written forum.
For those who don’t know me, I am an alumnus of the University of Kent. I graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor’s in microbiology and again in 2001 with a Master’s (conversion) degree in computer science.
During my time at the university I became heavily involved with the Adventure Gaming Society, a fairly unique group that facilitates the introduction of tabletop (board, card, war & roleplaying) gamers to one another and generally supports them in the hobby.
Alumni have always been welcome at the AGS and I have been an active member of the society for the last seventeen years. I’ve been honoured to serve as an unelected (officially, we do actually hold internal elections for several non-core committee positions of which mine is one) committee member for at least a decade of that time.
Along with some of the other alumni who remain members of the AGS (some of whom are now University staff) I have noticed a trend in the way societies are handled by the Union which has gradually eroded the society’s autonomy and made it difficult for the society to do its own thing without having to jump through hoops or deal with red tape.
This is not an attempt to exhaustively list the issues that have irked us over the years but hopefully the following points might inspire some others to make their own issues known so that we can begin a conversation about how it might be possible to improve matters.
We were once able to collect our own membership fees at the Welcome Fair and hand them into the cash office at the end of the day. This had to stop a few years ago, apparently, because of theft carried out by various societies. I believe the sports societies were mentioned in particular, where this was a particular issue due to the large size of the subs being collected.
Whilst I understand some of the issues involved it is a major nuisance to manage the membership list and subscriptions via the union’s online system.
A lot of people simply refuse to use the online membership system because of concerns over the security of the payment services that have been used and in protest at the scheme.
Whilst it has been possible for them to pay at the SU office it has nonetheless been a nightmare trying to sort out who is and is not a member and to produce our membership cards etc.
Why can’t we collect the money ourselves and maintain our own membership list? If you’re concerned about theft then you could supply sealed boxes with money slots that would enable secure collection or have people wandering around making regular collections of cash on the day to keep the funds in cash boxes low.
This one is particularly fresh in my mind right now. During the last term we proceeded with online elections as mandated by the SU. This followed on from the year before, in which it was mandated by the SU that a Union official must be the returning officer. Prior to that we were entrusted with the ability to hold our own elections.
First of all the election system employed by the union is deeply flawed.
In my experience people are often willing to coast along letting others do the work of keeping the society running. Unless someone is deeply passionate about the society and their role in it, they will only tend to stand for a core position when they realise that nobody at all is standing or someone they think is bad for the society is the only other candidate.
The online voting system did not let us see who was standing prior to the commencement of voting. Worse than that it didn’t let us see how many were standing.
This left us with the very real possibility that we might have had no candidates for one of our core positions, making the transition to next year very difficult indeed.
We also had no ability to elect someone at our AGM as an emergency measure due to a lack of candidates, making the future of the society a lot more vulnerable.
Finally, nobody got any results from our election. Not the current president, not the candidates, nor anybody else to the best of my knowledge. I’m sure I do not need to belabour the point as to why this is unacceptable.
We used to be able to form our own constitution and set our own membership fees, as long as certain ‘boilerplate’ provisions were included in respect of elections.
Now it seems that the Union pressurises each society into complying with the boilerplate constitution in toto, with variations to the constitution frowned upon if not forbidden.
I expect that this largely relates to the workload required in order to review each society’s constitution individually and because it is desirable to maintain consistency over time, but there must be a better way of handling this.
Getting money out of the union, doing anything which isn’t ‘standard’ or generally doing what we do seems to cause trouble for our core committee members, requiring them to negotiate a degree of bureaucracy in order to be able to get things done.
I’m not particularly well versed in the issues as I am not and have never been a core committee member but I’m sure that those who are or who have been core committee members will be pleased to comment on trends in this area.