Students clash over strike action and racist incident

Written by Featured, News

The final Council meeting of the semester took place last Thursday in the History Room of the Students’ Union. Six motions came before the council, five of which were passed.

The penultimate motion was entitled ‘Taking Action Against Racist and Homophobic Behaviour on Campus’, proposed by Warren Brown-Headley on behalf of Stand Up To Racism Newcastle. This motion came following a video uploaded to Instagram on 14 November in which a Newcastle student shouted racist and homophobic slurs. The motion called for more stringent responses to such behaviour, as well as lobbying the university to put forward a plan as to how they can prevent these things happening again, and to release the results of the current investigation.

Drawing attention to the statues around campus of famous Black rights figures, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Brown-Headley commented that whilst this highlights the University’s support of BAME students, the prerequisite to making BAME students feel safe on campus is not only to praise in public, but also in private matters.

He also said, “This question still remains, how are minorities – women, LGBTQ+ people, disabled, or anyone who becomes a victim of discrimination – supposed to have confidence in a disciplinary system that does not release the results of its own investigations? It’s the duty of the Students’ Union to represent the entire student body and to spearhead institutional change, not maintain the status quo”.

1424 people had already signed a petition supporting the motion, and many students spoke out passionately in favour of the cause and expressed their desire for more transparent disciplinary procedures. Despite this, Faith & Belief Officer Christopher Winter defended the necessity of anonymity following university disciplinary procedures.

Addressing such concerns, President Katie Smyth explained that following his conviction for both stalking and distributing revenge porn, Newcastle student Jefferson Young could be named as it was “in the public domain because it was a public court case”, but his punishment could not be publicly announced without his consent. She further explained that the case involving racist and homophobic slurs was a university disciplinary case, meaning that the perpetrators and their punishments could not be named. Smyth explained that the sabbatical officers could lobby the University to release more information related to their general disciplinary procedures, but not regarding specific cases.

This was the only motion of the night to be passed at Council with 100%, signalising the Union’s universal support for campaigning against discriminatory behaviour on campus.

Finally, a motion put forward by Labour Society President Matty Lacey proposed that NUSU should support all strike action, including both the most recent strikes and any in the future. He also proposed that the Union should “engage with the UCU in future if and when industrial action is taking place”. He furthermore described the launch of an open letter signed by the Labour Society, among others, asking for support for the lecturers and the democratisation of the University.

A passionate debate ensued on the issue. Those for the motion mentioned the working conditions of university staff, including zero-hour contracts and issues of low pay and pay gaps. The council also heard testimonies from current PhD students who work part-time for the University. Those against the motion were concerned about committing to unwavering support when the nature of future strikes is unknown. There was also a defence of NUSU’s recent neutral response on industrial action by those believing the Union should stay out of politics, with Elkhawad also saying the Union should be fair and representative of all students.

Smyth explained their neutral stance, stating: “The point was that we could support all students, whether for it, or the students that are against it as well, in terms of the impact on their studies. It was a big discussion.”
The motion was ultimately defeated at Student Council, with 43% of Council attendees voting in favour of the motion. A simple majority was required to pass the motion.

The Council meeting ended on an open debate over where students would like to see the strike money go. There were some specific requests, such as the creation of water collection schemes and the use of grey water, a new door for the Islamic prayer space, and the introduction of Chaplain rooms. One member suggested the money be returned to the striking lecturers, whilst others believed that students should be compensated for missed lectures. Smyth was clear to state that this was a hypothetical discussion and that conversations and the collection of student opinions were still ongoing.

The Students’ Union is committed to protecting the welfare of all students and is working closely alongside Student Progress to implement a review of the University’s disciplinary procedures.

Last modified: 9th December 2019

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