Why has the YUSU policy process been suspended?

The new Sabbatical Officer team, elected in February 2018 and due to take up their posts at the end of this month. Image: The Yorker
The new Sabbatical Officer team, elected in February 2018 and due to take up their posts at the end of this month. Image: The Yorker

You’ve probably heard about the recent furore over YUSU. Both the YUSU President and the Policy Coordinator are subject to votes of no confidence, the PRG has supposedly been “suspended” and students are condemning their Students’ Union on social media. It’s been covered in varying detail by NouseYork Vision and by The Yorker. But what does it all mean? As the former Policy Coordinator, let me try and break down what has fast become a very complicated situation.


What is the policy process?

Students often believe that their only way to change things, both at YUSU and at the University of York, is through electing the right candidate into a Sabbatical role. But there’s another route that students can take to enact change.

Students are able to put forward their ideas for new, official YUSU policy. These ideas are circulated among the wider student body, sent in particular to special committees and groups such as student societies, networks, academic representatives and sports clubs, to see whether the student population would approve.

Positive consensus will result in an idea being accepted and YUSU formally adopting your plan as a policy; negative consensus will mean your idea is rejected. (Johannes Huber, a former PRG member, provides a slightly old but still accurate step-by-step account here.)

What is the PRG?

The Policy Review Group (or Policy Review Group – no one’s quite sure which is right) is a body of four students, plus the Policy Coordinator. These students, who are appointed at the start of each academic year, are there to look at the feedback that the student population provides. They are there to decide whether the feedback indicates students’ approval or disapproval of your ideas. Students can apply to sit on the PRG at the start of each academic year.

What is the role of the Policy Coordinator?

The Policy Coordinator has several responsibilities, but their chief one is to make sure the policy process is carried out fairly, neutrally and, with luck, smoothly. They determine when policy processes start and finish during an academic term, set deadlines for policy submissions and feedback provision and hold public meetings to keep everything open to the student body. I was elected to the role between March 2017 – 2018 and I was succeeded by Josh Mackenzie in this year’s Officer Elections.

Why has this term’s policy process been suspended?

Earlier this week, Josh Mackenzie announced on Facebook that the current policy process has had to be called off. The President of YUSU, Alex Urquhart, has asked for the policy process to be suspended in light of a complaint against Mackenzie.

This complaint, an anonymous letter to the President, calling for a vote of no confidence, suggests that there is a conflict of interest that stems from Mackenzie’s role in York Vision as its Managing Director. On the complainant’s reading of a constitutional by-law, Mackenzie cannot both hold the role of the Policy Coordinator and have a place in a group that is specifically consulted when ideas are sent out for feedback.

Urquhart stated on Facebook that “until the matter is resolved, I am not confident that the process can be run fairly and have therefore suspended the policy process. This suspension is subject to the outcome of an investigation, which is now underway.”

I am not confident that the process can be run fairly, or in the best interests of student members while a complaint of this nature remains outstanding. This request is not one I am making lightly, I have given this considerable thought but regrettably feel I have no other option at this point.

How did this all happen?

Josh Mackenzie scheduled a PRG meeting on Tuesday morning. This would be the final element of the policy process, in which the PRG gathers, decides whether students support or dislike each idea and whether the proposals should become YUSU policy. This meeting has been much-awaited, as the policy process began in Week 1 of the term and was meant to conclude in Week 5.

But, at 9am that day, Mackenzie had a meeting with the Sabbatical Officers, in which Alex Urquhart gave Mackenzie an ultimatum: the meeting would not go ahead, as it would be inappropriate to continue the process while Mackenzie is subject to a vote of no confidence. The handful of students who turned up for the meeting watched Mackenzie write a Facebook post announcing the news, supervised by Sabbatical Officers Julian Porch, Laura Carruthers, Mia Shantana Chaudhuri-Julyan and Mikey Collinson.

Student media has reported on what has happened this week, but The Yorker is working on finding out more about what led to this week’s turn of events.

Is it right that the President can suspend a policy process?

As you’ve probably seen, students disagree on whether Alex Urquhart’s cancellation of the policy process was constitutionally legitimate. Urquhart cites By-Law 9, which states in Clause 16 that the Union President:

takes overall responsibility for running the Policy Process fairly and in such a way as to broaden involvement and ensure those most affected have a say and the opportunity to design how they participate.

For the record, the next clause of By-Law 9 states that the Policy Coordinator:

takes overall responsibility for reviewing the Policy Process and shall be considered the main spokesperson as to its fairness, responsible for communicating feedback and criticism of it to members and to the media.

Mackenzie has stated publicly that Urquhart has misread the constitution, writing on Facebook:

It is the view of the Policy Coordinator that this represents overreach and misinterpretation of the clause. The Policy Coordinator believes that this clause is clearly intended for determining the structure of the process, and not meant to provide the president with a veto.

Has the PRG been suspended?

Nouse reports that Urquhart’s decision means that the “PRG would be suspended.” This doesn’t quite make sense. After a successful application to sit on the PRG, a member serves for the duration of an academic year. So, by the time you’re reading this, the current members of the PRG will have technically stepped down. It is unknown whether the PRG will be called back to hold the investigation into whether Urquhart should be subject to a vote of no confidence referendum.

As far as I’m aware, Urquhart hasn’t sacked any members of the PRG and he’d be hard pushed to find a constitutional clause to let him do so. The only way to potentially justify such a move would be to refer to Clause 16 of By-Law 9, though this might make more students sympathetic to Mackenzie’s view.

Why is there a vote of no confidence against Alex Urquhart?

Soon after it was announced that this term’s process had been cut short, Huw James, formerly the Editor-in-Chief of York Vision, submitted a vote of no confidence against Alex Urquhart. Several campus political societies – Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives – have publicly voiced their support for this move.

James contends that the policy process has been maligned for far too long and Urquhart’s move is the last straw. In a letter, shared to the media, James blames “petty squabbling” that has led to the unwelcome conclusion of things.

However, Huw James is also angry because the motion he submitted, ‘For the Fallen’, which calls for YUSU to commemorate the Centenary of the First World War, has been put on hold again. James’s motion was one of the five I had to delay last term and is again going to be delayed.

So, not only does James think that the actions of YUSU, especially those of its President, are “grossly unprofessional,” but one of his own submissions is not being addressed.

The Labour Club’s statement also implies that YUSU has failed to act on policies proposals that were already accepted by the PRG:

It is clear there is a democratic deficit at the students’ union, with most ideas being ignored and even ideas and policies democratically passed unanimously through the policy process not being acted upon, such as the implementation of accessible menus in YUSU outlets.

It is worth bearing in mind that the author of the specific policy on braille menus, Aisling Musson, is formerly the Chair of the Labour Club.

What will happen now?

When an elected YUSU officer faces a vote of no confidence, the Policy Review Group is meant to investigate the matter for a given period of time to determine whether there is evidence for a vote to occur. If they believe there is, a campus referendum will be called on whether to remove the officer from their role. When it’s the Policy Coordinator who is subject to a vote of no confidence, it is the responsibility of the Full-Time Officer Group (the Sabbatical Officers) to carry out this investigation, rather than the PRG.

However, we’re now in a strange situation: both the Policy Coordinator and the Union President are subject to votes of no confidence at the same time. Theoretically, they’d both be leading investigations into each other’s alleged misconduct.

Furthermore, the incumbent Union President is meant to finish his tenure in a matter of days. Even if a full investigation were to be carried out at lightning speed, it would make little difference to Alex Urquhart if investigators believed there to be grounds to hold a referendum. By the time a referendum would be able to be called, Urquhart would have long since left his role (to go to teach English in Spain, I hear). In contrast, the Policy Coordinator is meant to step down in March 2019, so there’s plenty of time for a referendum to take place.

Lastly, no one yet knows what the collective view of the incoming Sabbatical Officer team is on the matter of putting Josh Mackenzie to a vote of no confidence. Perhaps it is the case that James Durcan will overturn his predecessor’s decision; alternatively, they could plough ahead and hold a referendum on whether to boot Mackenzie from his YUSU role.

What does this mean for the policy proposals currently under discussion?

The policy process has been put on hold “until further notice.” Most people are assuming that the proposals will be shifted into the next policy process, which should take place in the next academic term. There is nothing innately wrong about this – I had to do this for my last policy process as Policy Coordinator. Due to insufficient feedback from the student body, five proposals from the second academic term’s process were moved into this term’s process.

Practically, though, this will be problematic. Bearing in mind that the seventeen proposals that were included in the September – December 2017 process were seen as a record number, whoever is Policy Coordinator in September 2018 will face forty-five policy proposals before they’ve even started the next policy process. Some of these proposals have been put forward by students who will graduate before their proposals ever go out to consultation. What’s more, the Policy Coordinator will need to hastily find a new PRG before anything happens.

Whoever is in charge in September might attempt to continue the policy process with forty-five proposals. Alternatively, the process might be scrapped: trying to decide whether students support or reject forty-five proposals is pretty difficult, especially when feedback is limited and a third of the university’s current undergraduate population will have left before then. But scrapping the process will likely upset students even more.

So… now what?

We’re going to have to wait and see. The vote of no confidence against Mackenzie is underway and we understand he is to be interviewed as part of the investigation next week. As Alex Urquhart hands over his powers to James Durcan next week, there is little to no chance that a vote of no confidence will impact his position. What we ought to look out for next is what Durcan and the next generation of Sabbatical Officers do to either further or change the course of events.

The following two tabs change content below.

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018 and acting, 2018/2019. Waiting to graduate with MA in Philosophy at University of York in 2019.