If OUSU wants to be taken seriously, it should let us see what it’s up to

Cherwell, 15th May 2016

It was Otto von Bismarck who declared that there are only two things in the world you should never see being made: laws and sausages. And if you believe the rumours about our Prime Minister’s time here, there’s more than enough pork flying around at Oxford.

But at a much-awaited OUSU meeting on 28th April, in which delegates from Oxford’s thirty-eight colleges came together to decide whether we should be granted a referendum on our NUS membership, the gristle-grinding of democracy in action happened behind closed doors.

Having been sent by Cherwell to film the debate, we and our cameras were voted out of the room because of the sensitivities of a small minority of audience members. An erstwhile OUSU delegate suggested to the meeting that filming might break a rule of the council – a rule that, as it turns out, doesn’t exist. Having spoken to the Chair and President of OUSU council in the meantime, Cherwell learnt that nothing at all equips the chair to prevent filming, apart from general standing orders which require them to ensure that “council fulfils its functions” and that “everything is carried out in an appropriate manner”.

Yet the unfortunate Matthew Collyer, harangued by audience members sitting behind the camera, told us that if a single person in the room felt uncomfortable with filming, regardless of whether they appeared on tape, then we wouldn’t be allowed to film at all. A handful of audience members – who we had no interest in filming – wanted us to stop, so we left the room. Democracy in action indeed.

Delegates from across Oxford had gathered to discuss whether OUSU should hold a referendum to disaffiliate from NUS. Calls for the vote had been triggered in the wake of the election of controversial new president Malia Bouattia who stands accused of making anti-Semitic remarks. After hours of debate, the motion was eventually passed, and Oxford students will be given the chance to vote in sixth week on their University’s membership.

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Although of little importance to anyone outside the Oxford bubble, the move will have profound implications for our students. In any democracy, no matter how small, it’s imperative that we know what our representatives say on our behalf.

You’d think that a student organisation like OUSU, an insular community that attracted a measly 14% turnout at the last university-wide election, would be begging for the coverage. After all, the number of people interested in student politics here could barely fill the table at an elite dining society. When invented council rules are used to keep the lid on proceedings, you can understand why the turnout figure is so low.

In this case, our union chose to prioritise the discomfort of a small number of students over the openness and transparency of an organisation that is meant to represent us. The increasing prevalence of ‘safe spaces’ in areas which ought to be hubs of debate and free speech is typical of the way that student politics has become more concerned with its own moral righteousness and the avoidance of offence than with making itself accessible to the average student.

Oxford students can sleep well at night knowing that the freedom of the press in the real world lives on. Perhaps Bismarck was right to keep laws and sausages secret. But the privacy of pork has been breached – we’ve seen what goes on. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

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