A petition has been launched protesting the rules banning current sabbatical officers from endorsing any candidates or taking part in any campaign activities.
The petition, launched on Monday, has already garnered 177 signatures at the time of writing.
The petition, entitled “Allow all St Andrews students freedom to support any candidate in the student elections” states that “Our right to Freedom of Speech dictates that any student should be allowed to endorse any candidate in the upcoming student elections.
“It should be the right of all students to have a say in whom they would like to see represent them in the coming year.”
The petition continues, saying that, ”On 22/02/16, The University of St Andrews Students’ Association became the only Union in the country to prevent some students from expressing their opinion in an election.
“They have done so by banning sabbatical officers from being a part of any campaign or endorsing any candidate.
The changes, announced yesterday on the Elections Committee Facebook page, mark a change from previous years, when sabbatical officers have often campaigned for various candidates
The petition adds, “The Elections Committee notified the sabbaticals on 19/02/16 that supporting a candidate would be allowed; the late notice of this complete U-turn has resulted in at least one candidate with the majority of their campaign photos and videos rendered useless,”
“A sabbatical endorsing a candidate is no different to an incumbent running for a second term, hence endorsing themselves in the process whilst holding the position.
“The Elections Committee reasoned that this change was because a sabbatical could ‘provide information not available to other candidates’ – why then is this rule not extended to all incumbent positions rather than just the sabbaticals?
“The incumbent in any given position should know most about their job, and should therefore be well informed on who would be the best candidate.
“There is no precedent for this rule in any election that we can find – even the President of the United States can endorse a successor, so the argument that the sabbaticals are ‘well known’ is irrelevant.”
The petition goes on to say “this ruling is a fundamental breach of the sabbaticals’ freedom of expression and they should have the right to express whom they would like to see represent them as students next year,” although many sabbatical officers, such as current Association President Pat Matthewson and Director of Representation Joe Tantillo, have already graduated before they take on their roles.
Chris McRae, the Director of Events and Services, and the only person who will be affected by the changes, as he will return to fourth year after completely his year as a sabbatical officer expressed his support for the petition.
In a post on Facebook, he said, “As a student about to go into my fourth year, this absurd last minute move leaves me as the ONLY [sic] student in my year without the opportunity to express an opinion on whom I would like to represent me next year.
“I can no longer express my support for a well-qualified friend running for the head of a subcommittee I do not even line manage, because a non-elected committee decided sabbaticals are ‘too influential to have opinion’.
“I have a right to free speech; I would not be the first sabbatical to endorse a candidate in St Andrews; and I am part of the only Union in the country that has decided – less than a week before elections – not to allow every student in good standing the right to a voice on their representation.
“This is not student representation. Please sign the petition.”
One signatory to the petition, Ben Catchpole, said that, “All students, no matter what position they may or may not hold, should be allowed to make an objective decision about the future of their own university. Any restriction on this is a restriction on a fair and objective voting system.”
Speaking to The Saint, Sina Dashtebozorgy, who started the petition, said, “I believe this decision is outrageous since it is disallowing some students from expressing their opinion in what is meant to be a democratic process.
“There must be a reason why I failed to find any ruling remotely similar to this in any other universities in the country. I genuinely believe if this amendment is to stay, we will be the laughing stock of other students in universities across the country.”
Mr Dashtebozorgy declined to comment on whether or not he was running for a position himself in the upcoming student elections, or whether he was the “friend”, Mr McRae referred to.
However some of the comments of signatories to the petition seemed to imply that the petition was indeed motivated by the fact Mr McRae will not be able to endorse any candidate.
Thomas Landridge stated, “I support MacRae and find this to be an unjust system.”
Alessio Shostak, another signatory, commented, “This is a despicable subversion of the democratic process. Chris deserves a voice just like the rest of us!”
Following an emergency meeting earlier today, the Elections Committee released a statement in response to the petition.
Citing the high turnout of St Andrews students in elections, the fact that sabbatical officers are usually well known by the student body and have means to communicate with the entire electorate that other officer holders do not, they reaffirmed their decision.
“The decision on the 22nd February to disallow campaigning by sabbatical officers was brought to the table after requests from members of the Association asking for clarification on the position of sabbatical officers during the election season. It was decided that it is very difficult to separate a sabbatical from their role and thus in turn, it is with great difficulty that fairness and absolute democracy can be maintained with the inclusion of Sabbatical endorsement.
“St Andrews is a University unlike most: it’s voter turnout has for many years crept near or even exceeded 50% of the electorate – figures that more than double the turnout of other universities. With this in mind, the decision of the Elections Committee is based on the knowledge that more members vote in sabbatical races than any other and that sabbatical office-holders are known by a much larger percentage of the electorate than any other (in some cases around a third of students voted in individual sabbatical races last year).
“On top of this, unlike any other office holder, sabbaticals email all students within the University weekly, both with information pertinent to their remit but also with their face, office title and name attached. It was discussed at length that such a public figure having the ability to unduly influence the selection of their successor can only be damaging to democratic process as it can hold others back from running and is a hugely unfair advantage to the candidate in question, more so in St Andrews than in most Student Association Elections throughout the country – it does not however, hinder that office holder from fulfilling their right to vote.
The statement also addressed the petition’s point that there was a similarity between sabbatical officers endorsing a candidate and sitting sabbatical officers running for a second term, which is allowed.
“There was also a discussion during the emergency elections meeting over the ways in which sabbatical endorsement differs from an incumbent re-running for a second term. It was made clear that a re-run by a current office holder is based purely on the merit of that individual over both the course of their degree and their time as a sabbatical within the Students’ Association. With the endorsement of a sabbatical however, a candidate’s campaign could be seen to be based on the merit and achievements of the sabbatical rather than the individual running for the position. Sabbatical endorsement, as has already been stated, could have a much larger effect on electoral outcomes in St Andrews than in many other UK Student Association elections.
“Finally, St Andrews is not alone in the disallowing of sabbatical endorsement.
“Student elections in St Andrews are an exciting time and the Elections Committee is driven to making sure that our elections are democratic and enjoyable for all. Should any prospective candidate, voter or member of the Association have any queries please contact saelect@.”
Nominations for elections open 29 February.