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Oxford Union falls short on Michaelmas reforms

Union staff have failed to complete diversity and equality training, and committee training in Hilary term was not attended by the full committee.

In Michaelmas, blind Ghanaian student Ebenezer Azamati was violently removed from the debating chamber of the Union, and had his membership temporarily revoked. This led to impeachment proceedings and the resignation of the President and subsequently, the Union implemented new standing orders for the training of staff and committee members.

Standing Order E15 states: “The President shall each term approach the University Training, Mentoring and Advisory Services to arrange for: a) An implicit bias workshop b) A race awareness workshop c) A disability awareness workshop to take place for all members of staff and committee.” These workshops, however, took place for students, but not staff, in Hilary term.

Staff training has not yet occurred, despite it being mandated by the standing orders. Rule 59.a, concerning staff, in particular staff supervision, states that “general oversight” for the Society’s staff lies with the Bursar, who is part of the Society’s permanent paid staff.

Training sessions for the student committee were held in first week of Hilary term, but were not attended by those who had “valid reason” (clarified in an announcement to committee as ‘a tutorial that can in no way be moved’). While there was supposed to be “another [session] for those members of committee who did not make the first one”, this session did not occur.

Sara Dube, the ex-President, told Cherwell: “Organizing the training was a priority for me in Michaelmas, after I brought the Standing Order change to TSC. I was well aware that everyone’s schedules would fill up quickly once term began, so wanted to get the training dates and times in as soon as possible.

“I booked two sessions for the first week of Hilary, one with the University Disability Advisory Service and one with OUSU, over six weeks in advance. I made it clear to committee that the training was compulsory, and was glad to see the majority of committee attend both sessions (those who couldn’t attend had an immovable academic commitment at the same time).

“When the possibility of arranging a second training came up in Access Committee a few weeks later, I agreed. However, the initial trainings were booked over six weeks in advance and it wasn’t possible to find a suitable date for us until the last couple of weeks of term. I suggested to Access Committee that it may be more practical to have the next session at the start of Trinity, and they agreed.

“To ensure ease of arrangement of training for all future Presidents, I left all correspondence regarding the arrangements on a folder in the President’s inbox.” 

In a comment to Cherwell, current Union President Mahi Joshi, said: “In accordance with the Standing Orders, all members of committee were required to attend two compulsory training sessions at the beginning of Hilary Term 2020. The first of these sessions covered Disability Awareness, facilitated by the University’s Disability Advisory Service, and the second was an Equality Training workshop, covering both race and disability awareness.

“A large proportion of the committee at the time attended, actively participated in and engaged with both of these training sessions. Since these sessions were organised by the President at the time, Sara Dube, with no record passed on to myself or the current committee, I am unable to provide exact attendance figures, or details of logistical arrangements.”

In relation to staff training Dube stated, “I booked both training sessions with the intention of them being held for both staff and committee. Before the first of the sessions, myself and the Head of the Disability Advisory Service (who was running the session) were informed that the staff already had access to online training covering the areas of both the scheduled sessions, which would be completed.”

Joshi said, “It is my understanding that staff training was to take place in Week 8 of Hilary Term, but could not, due to changes to staff schedules resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, to which the Union was having to adapt.”

She added, “The training was to take place online, and the provider had beenidentified by the member of staff in chargeof overseeing it. I am told that, due to the frequent turnover of staff in the Union, the training was to be undertaken by members of staff once the shifts for TT20 had beenidentified.”

Some staff have been trained prior to Michaelmas, but exact numbers were unavailable. The Union was unable to comment on whether the security staff involved in events in Michaelmas had received training, due to it being an ‘ongoing disciplinary matter’.

In a Standing Committee meeting in first week of Trinity Term, after questions from the Access Officer about commitment to staff training, the Bursar stated that she was “still investigating it.”

Staff and committee for Trinity Term have not yet been trained, due to the closure of the Union as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown restrictions. Staff have now been furloughed. 

In relation to the Union’s staff and their training Joshi stated: “The majority of the Union’s staff members work with us on a part-time basis, with wide-ranging hours. In order to work around this, provisions were being made for staff to partake in online training, which could be accessed in their own time, overcoming the logistical and contractual challenges of gathering all the staff in one place at any given time. The vast majority of the staff has since been furloughed due to the pandemic, naturally bringing opportunities for training to a halt.”

Concerning the future training of both student committee and paid staff, she said: “In spite of the unprecedented circumstances, the Union remains committed to training both its committee, and its staff. Had it not been for the pandemic, and had the Union continued to have in-person events, we would have ensured to train committee at the very beginning of term, before commencing their logistics, press and other term-time duties, which involve interacting with the membership, and members of the public. 

“However, given that no members of committee will be interacting with the membership this term, the Access Officer and myself have taken some time to research alternative sources of training to the University services, and have approached a few training companies to see what they might offer, and how this might suit us. We have also reached out to the Disability Advisory Service, and the Student Union, to check what they might be able to offer us remotely. We remain committed to ensuring that the requirements stipulated above are met by the conclusion of the term. 

“In Michaelmas Term 2020, when the Union will hopefully be in a position to resume in-person events, my successor will be committed to ensuring that the new committee is trained at the beginning of the term, before commencing their duties. We are also committed to ensuring that provisions for staff training are in place for when they return to work from furlough.”

Image credit to Kaihsu/ Wikimedia Commons

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