A referendum in a student union is a vote of all students on a particular issue, usually based on one issue. Some see it as the purest form of democracy because it empowers people to make decisions directly. Especially on tough issues that even experts might struggle to make decisions on, referendums are the way to give people the final say. Therefore, in the governmental and student context, as opposed to people making decisions on our behalf, such as MPs or sabbatical officers, this provides the opportunity for votes to be open to all. Referendums, however, only work if people are educated enough to make an informed decision and try not to respond to apathetic voters. This means that League referenda must be about policy decisions that really matter to students.
At Oxford, there have been some great examples of students calling for referendums to extend direct democracy to the student body. One of the most important of these was the subfusc referendum held at Trinity Term 2015, where 75% of students favored keeping the subfusc compulsory compared to 24% who voted to make clothing non-compulsory. However, the referendum was quite divisive. In the weeks leading up to the vote, some students had created a “Save Subfusc” campaign urging students to keep the vestments as an academic tradition, describing the robe and mortar board as “egalitarian.” On the other side, those who support the “Subfusc Off” campaign have raised concerns about the image of elitism that sub fusc is supposed to create, as well as the discomfort of students who do not wish to wear the clothes. traditional for their exams.
This referendum garnered an impressive turnout, with 40.62% making their voices heard, which was at the time the highest turnout ever recorded for an inter-campus vote by an English university student union. This is what SU at its best looks like – a forum where students can contribute and vote on their highest priorities in a democratic way.
The process for calling referendums at Oxford SU is clearly defined in the Sixth Bylaw. This implies that a motion must first be presented to the student council before being put to a vote of all the students. The minimum quorum for a referendum is also 5%, which means turnout must be high to demonstrate that students care about the issue. Typically, to organize a referendum, students must also simultaneously run a campaign that explains why they are proposing a certain policy and how voting for or against it would have a tangible impact on students.
As it stands, much like after the 2016 NUS election which was surrounded by allegations of anti-Semitism, the NUS is being questioned about its commitment to Jewish students. In this case, much like it was done in Oxford in 2016, a referendum is the way to get the most student views on board and is a way to make a final decision on whether we support NUS . In the 2016 election, Oxford (and Cambridge) both voted to continue to remain affiliated with NUS, but many other SUs chose to disaffiliate.
Ultimately, the SU serves its members, the students, and any decision, from the current one on the NUS, to any other decisions that may arise in the future, should ultimately result either from an electoral mandate of the one of the officers, either on a motion. or referendum. Taking initiative and raising awareness about the issues you care about is the most effective way to contribute to a democratic university.