In an extraordInary open meeting held on Tuesday evening, St Catherine’s JCR declared itself independent from its college with 154 votes in favour, five abstentions and no opposition.
The motion to declare independence from the College stated, “This JCR believes that it is necessary for the Junior Common room to cease to be an incorporated body of the College to effectively protect its interests as a Student Union [as it is defined by the Education Act 1994].”
This followed a decision taken by the College at the end of Hilary, without consultation, to incorporate JCR financing into the College structure, giving the College the power to oversee and veto purchases.
This decision was made by the College on the basis of its responsibilities under the Education Act 1994 and the Charities Act 2006 to ensure proper financial accountability throughout the College.
St Catherine’s College argued that incorporating the JCR financing into the College structure was a necessary measure, owing to a period during the tenure of a previous committee in which records were shown not to have been properly kept by the JCR.
The JCR Committee responded that this was unnecessary, however, given that a change of practice within the JCR had been put in place since then and that there had not been any cause for financial concern “in years”.
JCR President Jack Hampton presented the case for independence to the JCR, stating at the meeting that the College had been “unreasonable” in the scale of the changes made and expressed a sentiment that the College “disregards” the JCR, having felt that “verbal notice made in passing to a committee member to be sufficient to communicate such a significant change to the JCR.”
He further argued, “Independence is necessary due to the College’s potential to overrule our actions, and to encroach into JCR business, should [the JCR] accept the changes enforced by the College which put the JCR under the financial arrangements of the Clubs and Socs system, which is impractical for out-of-hours purchases.”
The Clubs and Socs system is the method by which clubs and societies are funded. Students who are members of a club or society foot the bill of any society expenses themselves, and the College later reimburses them. However, expenses can sum up to several hundred pounds, and the College can take up to a month or longer to pay students the money.
By becoming independent from the College, the JCR funds cannot be controlled by the College under a Clubs and Socs style system. Independence will, in practice, mean becoming an ‘unincorporated association’ of the college.
The third resolution of the motion stated, “The Common room remains proud members of the College, and expresses its belief that independence is a normalisation towards the standard practice elsewhere in Oxford, and no way affects our commitment to the College itself.”
Hampton told Cherwell shortly after the meeting, “[this move] is a clarification [of the relationship] but I have no doubt certain parts of College will see it as a rebellion.” He added, though, that he was “ecstatic” with the decision and proud to have had “the highest turnout of his tenure” for any JCR meeting with almost half of all undergraduates present to pass the motion unopposed. Hampton informed the JCR of threats that the College had made should they opt for independence, including charging to use college space “presumably at conference rates” and ceasing to add the JCR levy to batells and pass it on to the JCR’s account.
He joked to those present at the meeting, “I’d like to see them try to stop us using the JCR.” When asked by Cherwell whether he thinks these threats will now be carried out by College, Hampton replied, “I reckon they won’t do anything.” While this move is likely to elicit a negative response from the Home Bursar and the Dean, Hampton reported that on Tuesday morning the Master of the College, then unaware of the later developments in the extraordinary open meeting, remarked that “that sounds perfectly reasonable” when informed by Hampton of what independence would involve.
Four other motions also passed by wide margins, including accepting loans from some or all of the 13 other JCRs which have offered such support in the last week (£500 each). Currently, the College is withholding a fee of £5,400, which was ue to have been paid to the JCR on Saturday of 3rd Week. The loans from other colleges will allow Catz JCR to continue to run as normal until relations with the College improve.
JCR Treasurer Saleem Akhtar told Cherwell, “The decisions made in the extraordinary open meeting were the beginning of a normalisation process which will bring the relationship between St Catz and the St Catz JCR in line with that of the rest of the University and indeed student unions nationwide. In my two year membership of the JCR, I’ve never seen its members rally around an issue quite like they did yesterday and that’s important; the JCR President certainly wasn’t exaggerating when he said this was the most important decision that the JCR has made in recent times.
“I think it’s important to remember that although a big step was taken yesterday, this is far from the end of our issues with the College. Alt hough t he JCR is now legally independent from the College, the College still has control of the JCR’s finances, which is why we’re very grateful that other colleges have shown solidarity in not only vocally agreeing with our cause but also actively helping us by offering interest-free loans – we’ll need these in the weeks to come to continue offering the services the Committee provides (including entz, welfare, publications and maintenance, among other things). The Committee will continue to fight to regain control of our finances until the end of our respective terms and probably even afterwards.”
A motion of confidence in JCR President Jack Hampton, proposed by first year PPEist Dominic Norcliffe-Brown, also passed unanimously and was greeted with cheers and applause. Norcliffe-Brown stated, “College has attacked Jack [Hampton] over his efforts in recent weeks and we should demonstrate that we are fully behind him.”
A further motion, which passed with 94 votes for and 11 against, resolved the JCR to “have collective mobilisation on this issue against College” in response to its “disregard for the JCR”. While no specific action was agreed or voted on, suggestions included occupying the SCR, blocking the bridge to the college and refusing to stand for the fellows at that Friday’s Hall. The action taken will be determined at a later date or by individual students’ own initiatives.
The final motion mandated the creation of a sub-committee to continue working on this constitutional issue and on relations with the College after the hand-over in Michaelmas following the JCR’s upcoming elections.
OUSU President Louis Trup said in a statement to Cherwell, “It was great to see Catz JCR make such a strong statement to the college. OUSU, as well as other JCRs in Oxford, will continue to support Catz JCR in achieving the demands they have made. Solidarity forever.”
The Dean of St Catherine’s and its Home Bursar both declined to comment.