At the annual general meeting (AGM) of the University of Chester Students Union, students voted in favour of a referendum on continuing affiliation with the National Union of Students. The vote was made up of a variety of sports clubs and societies, including the University of Chester Debating Society that has had major disagreements with the NUS in the past.
It was an event filled with controversy as the Student's Union and the trustee board members were heavily scrutinised on a variety of topics throughout the evening. When voting came to decide on external affiliations, the case was made against NUS affiliation. Rather than a decision to disaffiliate at the meeting, a compromise was agreed, leading to the referendum being agreed. When asked about a commitment to hold the referendum, the returning officer for CSU said that this would need to be decided in a consultation with the relevant parties. The meeting was promised that a date will be agreed for the referendum to take place "next academic year, definitely."
The external trustees were asked their opinion on the referendum and said they were in no position to comment on the decisions made by students but could only ensure that they are carried out in the best way possible. When asked if they thought this was the case, they replied similarly, but said they were pleased about the issue going to a vote, presumably as opposed to an on-the-spot decision being made about NUS affiliation.
Interactions on social networking sites following the event show that Chester Student's Union still favour affiliation with the NUS. Becky Lees, the Vice President said that CSU "strongly recommend we stay in affiliation" with the President, Katie Badman, seconding this later.
Those who pushed the referendum through have described it as "brilliant," and that even though doubts surround the ability to win this referendum "if we can affect change in any way, it shows we can affect more change in the future." This referendum has been pushed through in line with a section of the 1994 Education Act that details annual referendums on external affiliation, must be offered by Student's Unions. Despite claims that this has not been met, CSU maintained in the meeting that they have always upheld this act.
Of course, this referendum was not passed without controversy, as these decisions were passed by a majority vote held in proxy by a small number of students. Larger numbers of students had signed to have their votes cast for them on the night, and the group holding these votes - spread across a number of different clubs and societies - acted in the name of ensuring their voices were heard. Other students in attendance questioned the groups claims of democracy, accusing the group of "side-lining us all" and "acting to the letter but not to the spirit" of the proxy law. Nevertheless, the accused students maintained that all proxy votes had been acquired within the law of the constitution, and assured the meeting that all those who had agreed to their vote being cast by proxy consented to the action that was being pursued, beforehand.
A 'say yes to NUS' campaign by CSU has since started, however there are fears amongst those who passed the referendum that the 'no' campaign will be vilified due to their use of proxy voting, instead of "a mature debate about affiliation." This apparent vilification has been visible in a statement regarding the BUCS (British Universities and Colleges Sport) affiliation vote on the night. CSU President posted online that "last night BUCS only just passed. If this hadn't gone through there would be NO sports teams at Chester. Which would also mean [CSU Staff] out of jobs." Those who voted from the referendum believed that this statement was "slanderous," suggesting they were opposing something that they in fact were not. CSU answered this, by posting the official results some time later.
Calls have been made by students to re-examine proxy laws, or make students more aware of them before the next AGM, to avoid majority votes being held by small groups of students. But the controversies concerning the NUS, such as the actions surrounding George Galloway (an influencing factor raised to the trustees following the event) have forced the strong-willed to make a stand. Going into the next academic year, they will be at the forefront of a campaign to completely change the political landscape of their university.