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University prevents Union freshers’ fair ban by treating them as a student society

The Oxford Union will not be banned from the freshers’ fair after the University has decided to treat them as a student society, despite the Union’s independence from the University’s or Proctors’ authority. Whilst the SU motion prevents the Union from purchasing a commercial stall at freshers fair, the University will allow them to apply for a student stall and bypass the ban, as they should be “treated on the same basis for bookings at the Fresher’s Fair, as it is run by students and has a high proportion of student members. Many other unregistered societies are permitted to attend the fair on this basis.”

This will also likely enable the Union to avoid the cost of a commercial stall. A senior Union source told Cherwell that “the Union should be able to attend the fair as normal but without having to pay the [SU] the almost £4000 cost of buying a corporate slot.” 

The University told Cherwell: “The Freshers’ Fair is intended for the benefit of all students and should therefore be open to all student-facing societies.  We do not support attempts to select those who are eligible without adherence with the universities policies and appropriate engagement.” 

One of the University’s pro-vice chancellors, Professor Martin Williams told The Telegraph: “The Oxford Union, a debating society independent of the University but whose leaders and members are mostly drawn from our student body, has not been banned from attending the Freshers’ Fair.  Students should be free to decide whether to join a society or club. Whilst we understand there are concerns held by the Student Union about the Oxford Union, the University is actively encouraging the two organisations to talk through the issues.”

The SU has claimed that “this is a concerning precedent in its attempt to undermine concerns that students have raised and democratically affirmed regarding issues such as forms of harassment and bullying”.

In response, the University told Cherwell: “We do understand that the Student Union has concerns about the management of the Oxford Union. We encourage the SU to constructively engage with the OU on this, and would advise this approach for any student-facing society the Student Union may have concerns about.”

As part of a preliminary review the SU also addressed a letter to the Union president, Matthew Dick, which specified a few “simple initial recommendations” to improve the experience of Oxford Students. This review by the VP for Access and Academic Affairs and VP for Welfare and Equal Opportunities was mandated alongside the commercial freshers’ fair ban in the last student council meeting. 

The SU recommended the Union to register with the Proctors office, which would provide “an external mechanism for dealing with internal problems”. Yet, this would violate the Union’s Independence Clause (Rule 69), which stipulates: “The Society shall not be registered with the Proctors as a University Club.” 

Alongside this, the SU expected the Union to commit to:

  • Ensuring that all committee members and event officials are specifically anti-sexual violence trained, along with the cretion of the position of anti-sexual violence officer
  • Creating explicit policies on anti-harassment, anti-bullying and anti-victimisation, anti-indirect discrimination and direct-discrimination, and whistleblowing
  • Removing punishments for members who cannot attend Union meetings for academic-related reasons

The SU also proposed that the OU extend the free open period in Michaelmas to a month, rather than the current two weeks, which would “allow students to make a more informed decision” in regards to membership purchases. Additionally, the SU invited the Union to an open student-led discussion on how to improve its culture before the last student council meeting in June. 

Updated at 7:55 on 20/05/2023 to reflect University comment.

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