Mocks, Change.org and why referendums are not always as democratic as they seem.


EDITORIAL by Jeppe Damberg, 
January 19th, 2018


[aesop_content color=”#000000″ background=”#ffffff” component_width=”600px” columns=”1″ position=”none” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” disable_bgshading=”off” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]Late November 2017 a petition was created on Change.org to “Move Mocks”. Perhaps inspired by the speaker from Change.org at YES Conference, some students hoped that a petition could convince staff to move the mock examinations by a week or two. Reasonably, students argued that due to the importance of the mocks on our midyear reports – which are sent to our universities – to place exams this close to university deadlines and merely a week after the break put them in a difficult situation. The petition gathered many hundreds of signatures and suddenly hope was sparked among students that this petition could perhaps work.
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At the same time, the petition put the Student Council in a difficult position. Despite being notoriously known among staff for an eagerness to push academic deadlines, they saw a challenge too unrealistic to take on. The school calendar is a fragile and highly inflexible framework that consists of academic deadlines, conferences, fairs, breaks etc., and the Student Council knew that to move exams by a week or two was not as simple as it sounded. Additionally, Student Council had together with other members of staff created the school calendar, and so the Council feared that moving mocks could have implications for future negotiations on major deadlines as it could, to some extent, undermine the seriousness of the Council. 
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The two parties were therefore bound for conflict when students in favour of the petition called upon the Student Council to represent their cause. The argument here was, as evident in the many hundred signatures, that moving mocks reflected the interest of the majority of the student body. Student Council found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Did this majority mean that they had to represent a matter they believed to be highly problematic for both staff and students? In Facebook comments, it seemed clear to some students that any elected body should regard this petition as a majority vote – a referendum so to say – and therefore be obligated to push the majority’s argument.
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A petition unlike many modern referendums.

This comparison of the petition to some modern referendums is interesting as it provides quite some insight into why this was such a difficult issue for the parties involved. We have heard about many referendums the past years. In the United Kingdom, a majority of voters chose to leave the European Union in 2016, and a constitutional referendum in Turkey granted Erdogan sweeping new powers in 2017. These votes are portrayed as popular governance in their purest form, but in fact, studies have found they often subvert democracy rather than serve it. 
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The problem with referendums arises as voters – in our case students signing the petition – have to act with very little information or information manipulated by others. In the United Kingdom, we saw a false reality based on manipulated information be given to the British public by Nigel Farage and his gang of opportunists, effectively influencing the outcome of the vote. The lack of correct information means that we tend to reduce the complexity of a vote’s outcomes to a simple “for” or “against”, “yes” or “no”. The vote is then often influenced by wether we support the current government, instead of an individual assessment of what the outcomes of it will be. The voters are, however, not to blame. Voters can only act on the information presented to them by experts, politicians and the media. Similarly, no student of UWCM, perhaps not even staff, can be expected to have a clear picture of all the outcomes that follow changing two weeks’ schedule of the school calendar if they were not presented with the logic behind it. This is the responsibility of the leadership of the school, including the Student Council, and certainly something that can be bettered next year.
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A Union?
At the height of the debate, Student Council posted a message, arguing that due to the many deadlines already postponed this year, it was not possible for the Council to take on this request. Additionally, the Student Council argued that since it had been involved in the planning of the calendar 2017, it would be unwise to criticize and attempt to alter it only weeks before the mock examinations. Dissatisfied comments followed in the Facebook thread. One slightly comical comment read “It does not matter how crazy or stupid our ideas are, they should be representing them. Impeach” .  Some said that they failed to see how the Council was representing the majority’s interest. Others were frustrated that the Council had recommended that the student body themselves should, as a united majority, reach out to the school leadership. Was the Council right to disregard this petition as a popular vote? Yes. The Council is a mediator between staff and students, and it is right to compare it to a sort of parliament for the student body. In well-functioning democracies, parliamentarians – not always but often – work to find solutions that serve the interests of the majority but simultaneously protect the rights of minorities (there were students who wished mocks not to be moved). The Council is not, as some students argued in Facebook comments a “workers’ union”, and though it should take the petition seriously, it is not obligated to act on it if it deems it unwise for students to do so. 

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As often happens with referendums, a narrative was imposed arguing that the Student Council did not want to represent students’ interests. The belief that the petition was like a referendum and the understanding of the Council as a workers’ union, guided by a false narrative that the Council disregarded students’ interests, was now undermining the very credibility of the Council and its members. This petition had turned into a form of Russian roulette for the Council. They wished to support the students as they have done many times before, but they could not undermine their credibility to the staff by trying to move the mock examinations. Though not similar in the ambient noise of politics we see outside the moat, the petition did become similar to some modern referendums in that it undermined trust in the democratic system instead of encouraging it. Though many students observed this incident as a failure of the Student Council to serve their interests, it is ultimately an oversimplification of reality. The Council have to pick its battles to be effective, and after much debate it concluded that this particular battle would undermine students’ interest in the long run. Hopefully, students will remain faithful in the Student Council as they continue to serve students’ interests. 
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This argument of this article, however, does not imply that students were not right in their complaints about mock exams. With many people signing the petition, it did – as a petition – highlight an important issue. The mocks are placed too close to December break and too close to university deadlines, causing much stress among students. It is therefore very positive to know that the school is revising the calendar 2018-2019 and the restructuring of breaks, mock exams and events.

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