OUSU has avoided outright opposition from two JCRs on the issue of tuition fees this week.
On Sunday students at Exeter defeated a motion at their JCR meeting that proposed a referendum on disaffiliation from OUSU. The same evening a motion condemning the actions taken by OUSU and the NUS in relation to the higher education funding debate failed to pass at Magdalen.
The motions have called into the question the role of OUSU and individual JCRs in representing the views of students. At the weekly Prescom meetings JCR presidents have discussed whether their roles should be to represent political views or, more neutrally, to disseminate information to college members.
At Magdalen 55 students voted against the motion while 20 were in favour. The Exeter motion was defeated 10 votes to 5 with abstentions.
Although neither motion passed members of both colleges felt that they had achieved something. Exeter student David Thomas disagreed with the motion generally but said “we want the message to come through that we’re not entirely happy with the way we’ve been represented by OUSU.”
Henry Curr proposed the motion at Magdalen and said that, despite its failure, “I think some good has come of it anyway.” He said he thought it had raised awareness within OUSU of the variety of views held by students at the University on the issue of higher education funding.
Exeter JCR President Katy Moe proposed the motion to disaffiliate from OUSU due to the JCR’s traditionally apolitical stance, also embodied in the JCR constitution. The motion stated that “OUSU’s recent political actions do not represent our JCR’s view.”
The motion considered by Magdalen opposed the NUS protest in London on 10th November, OUSU’s portrayal of the effect of the proposed changes in higher education finance, and government cuts to university funding. Unlike the motion at Exeter, it did not oppose OUSU taking a political stance but the way in which it had put across particular views. The portrayal of student views by OUSU as homogenous was unpopular, with the motion highlighting a comment made by OUSU President David Barclay. He said the London protests had “sent a clear message to politicians that students… are passionate about…allowing free and fair access for the next generation on their ability to study, not their ability to pay.”
The motion also termed OUSU’s actions a “misinformation campaign” about the effects of the fee proposals on student debt.
“I think it’s entirely legitimate to take a stance on fee proposals,” Curr said, but added that he disagreed with “the choice of language of NUS and OUSU.”
OUSU President David Barclay spoke at the Magdalen JCR meeting in OUSU’s defence and had also planned to attend the Exeter meeting but said he was unable to due to a lack of time. He described debate in common rooms on such issues as “healthy” and “not damaging” to OUSU: “On issues as important as this views are never going to be unanimous.” His impression was that his presence at the meeting had been “well-received”.
Barclay reminded students present at the meeting that the stance taken by OUSU was the result of discussion in OUSU council, which all students are welcome to attend. Curr accepted this but said after the meeting: “It doesn’t remove our right to criticise. It’s still legitimate to say OUSU shouldn’t have done that on our behalf.”
At Exeter, Moe said that members of the JCR she had spoken to had seemed “uncomfortable” about the political stance taken by OUSU on tuition fees. When asked why Exeter had chosen this time to consider disaffiliation despite OUSU opposing fee increases since 2009, she replied “I didn’t anticipate this scale of reaction… I didn’t envision protests.”
Other members of Exeter JCR agreed with their president that the extent of OUSU involvement in the tuition fee debate had been too great with the protest in London on 10th November a particularly emotive issue. “A lot of people were annoyed about OUSU funding the protest,” Thomas said. He suggested that political representation became more important when “actual resources are being spent on a campaign.” OUSU paid for coaches to take protestors to London.
However, Thomas described the step of disaffiliation as “more than a little bit strong” in response to these issues. He pointed out that OUSU would still be perceived as representing Oxford students generally. “Disaffiliation doesn’t reverse the press coverage, for example of the protest, that has already happened,” he said.
When proposing the motion at Magdalen, Curr had considered including a resolution to support the Browne Review, the government-commissioned report into higher education funding, but was concerned about the negative press coverage this could have attracted. A motion supporting the review passed by Christ Church JCR on 7th November had been portrayed as elitist in the national press. He said his impression had been that fear of negative coverage was still partly why the motion had failed, and that there had been “broad agreement with some parts of the motion” in the meeting.