Inside the SU Deep State

Nick Miao

Sabbatical Officers at Students’ Union UCL (SU) are elected in cross-campus elections once a year to represent the student voice at the highest level, both within the University and the Union. They sit on the UCL Council, the University’s governing body, and collectively determine the strategic direction of the Union, each chairing a different ‘policy zone. They also routinely appear in your email inbox in the form of weekly newsletters which, let’s be honest, barely anyone reads.

At least, this is the picture that both UCL and the Union try to paint. But an investigation by The Cheese Grater has revealed that elected sabbatical officers were largely kept in the dark when it came to what kind of policies were being submitted to the Union’s various policy zones, a process that was, until very recently, monopolised by the Union’s senior management.

The Union’s senior management is a team of permanent staff, composed of the Chief Executive (yes, there is a CEO at the SU), the Director of Student Experience, the Director of Policy, Governance, and Advocacy, the Director of Finance, and the Director of Operations.

The reason why hardly anyone knows about the ‘senior management team’ is that none of these positions are elected by the student body. Rather, these are real adults put in charge of actually running the Union on a day-to-day basis, maintaining the continuity of Union operations as well as acting in its ‘best interests’ as advisors to the Board of Trustees.

On paper, we can think of the senior management team as the people responsible for the execution of policies enacted by student representatives, from your Sabbatical Officers to your average student reps. It is also understood that senior management routinely works with the sabbatical leadership on major policy and operational decisions.

In reality, what is considered to be in the ‘best interests’ of the Union is largely down to the discretion of the senior management team. For example, Union sources have told us that senior management (with the help of some lawyers) has had considerable input over the precise wording of the Union’s official response to the ongoing genocide in Palestine. It is understood that this intervention was made over concerns about legal compliance with the Education Act 1994, which sets out what students’ unions can or cannot do.

The senior management team’s ability to wield considerable effective power behind closed doors is questionable, not only because they are unelected but also because of the lack of transparency over who they are and what they do. In a recent policy zone meeting in January 2024, the opacity of the Union’s structures and democratic process prompted Non-Portfolio Societies Representative Seth Harris to question whether his policy proposal, which was ‘pushed back’ for a second time without a clear explanation, was being intentionally filibustered by senior management.

In an interview with The Cheese Grater, Seth told us that he was only given ‘vague answers and the occasional awkward silence’ when he confronted Union staff about the delay at an internal meeting. ‘At the time, nobody wanted to tell me what was going on, as though they were trying to hide something,’ he said, ‘It was only after sending multiple follow-up emails asking for further clarification that senior management agreed to meet me.’

In response to the accusation, Union staff at the Democracy and Representation Team explained to student representatives the filtering process that student policy proposals undergo before they even get reviewed by elected student representatives. The staff member also added that ‘we don’t usually show this to people’.

Source: Students’ Union UCL. This graphic is a recreation of the slideshow presented to zone members by Union staff on the Democracy and Representation Team.

The staff member explained that this was a ‘collective process’ involving back-and-forth feedback between the policy proposer, the relevant operations teams, and the senior management team before a policy makes it to the zone. The staff member went on to explain that ‘sometimes a policy proposal does not need to go to a policy zone. It could be an operational issue dealt with internally’.

The problem with this process is that none of this, nor the role of the senior management team, is mentioned in any of the Union’s governing documents. The evident opacity over who they are and what they do makes it incredibly difficult for student representatives and student media to hold responsible actors accountable for their actions. When Equity & Inclusion Officer Ahmad Ismail asked whether there is a limit on how long a policy can be considered by senior management, the staff member admitted that ‘there is very little in the bylaws about the policy zones apart from the fact that they exist’.

Another problem is that our sabbatical officers, who are meant to chair the zones and set the strategic direction for the Union, are not even mentioned in this process. In that same meeting, the Sabbatical Officers were shocked to hear that Seth’s policy proposal was delayed yet again, presumably stuck somewhere in the filtering process. Despite Activities & Engagement Officer Aria Shi’s assertion, ‘[o]f course I oversee all the policies’ – her only contribution during the entire discussion – other Sabbatical Officers present were left practically in the dark. According to another Union source, Postgraduate Officer Issy Smith was said to be quite upset that they weren’t told anything about the policy proposal beforehand, with the Sabb reportedly saying that it ‘made us look like clowns’ for not being able to answer any of Seth’s questions.

This begs the question of just how ‘student-led’ the Students’ Union is when the elected sabbatical leadership were not even informed of the various student policies that were submitted to the Union for consideration.

The Cheese Grater understands that this process has now been changed to involve the input of sabbatical officers as a direct result of that zone meeting in January. Student policy proposals are now brought to the sabbatical officers’ attention at their routine meetings with the senior management team. Seth’s policy was eventually brought to the most recent policy zone meeting in February and approved unanimously by elected student reps, three months after it was initially proposed.

Nonetheless, the question remains whether senior management would have changed its long standing habit of operating behind closed doors. Indeed, had it not been for the efforts of one very insistent and frankly irritating student rep who was adamant about seeing his policy proposal through the Union’s impossibly opaque bureaucracy, it is unclear whether it would ever have seen the light of day, let alone any changes to senior management’s practice of excluding our elected sabbatical officers from certain decision-making processes.

The delays to Seth’s policy also served to demonstrate how the lack of transparency at the highest levels of the Union can be destructive to trust, having once theorised that the delays were part of a larger conspiracy by senior management to cover up a policy failure. ‘It was actually quite underwhelming to find out there is no conspiracy or official cover-up,’ Seth told us in an interview, ‘They are just kind of shit at the job.’ The truth, as it turns out, echoes the saying: ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.’

Incompetence is costly. The lack of trust, transparency, and general awareness of the Union’s democratic structures opens the door to exploitation by opportunistic individuals who know just enough about the Union to game the system. The shocking results of this year’s Leadership Race are a testament to this fact, as the infamously ‘lazy’ Activities & Engagement Officer Aria Shi wins her second term despite having nothing to show for it and even being suspended from campaigning for breaking the Union’s own election rules.

Inasmuch as we can blame these individuals for acting on their narrow self-interest, it is also unclear whether the ‘real adults’ on the Union’s senior management team have given us sufficient reason to lay our trust in them. Participation in any kind of politics requires a great deal of trust and understanding of the system, and that calls for transparency in our decision-making processes. But it is certainly difficult to trust something that you cannot even attribute a face or name to.

Any ‘real adults’ reading this might want to think about whether they are building a Union of students or a Union of faceless corporate executives and accountants.

Correction: The first version of this article did not include the Director of Operations on the senior management team and stated that the senior management team sits on the Board of Trustees. ‘The Cheese Grater apologises for this oversight.

This article appeared in CG 87.