The Oxford University Student Union has decided to bring in significant changes to its sabbatical officer roles, which will come into force next academic year. These changes are the result of a role review carried out by last year’s sabbatical officer team and will affect the forthcoming SU elections in Hilary Term 2023.
Sabbatical officers are the six student representatives elected by the student body to lead the SU. They include the President and five vice-presidents, each of whom has a distinct area of responsibility. Typically, sabbatical officers work with student campaigns and sit on taskforce committees to coordinate strategy for student initiatives, while undertaking projects on a range of issues affecting students around Oxford. They are called sabbatical officers because they rusticate in order to carry out the role.
Previously, the sabbatical officers of the SU have been as follows:
- Vice-President (Access and Academic Affairs)
- Vice-President (Charities and Community)
- Vice-President (Graduates)
- Vice-President (Welfare and Equal Opportunities)
- Vice-President (Women)
However, the new roles, listed below, have now been approved:
- Vice-President (Activities and Community)
- Vice-President (Undergraduate Education and Access)
- Vice-President (Postgraduate Education and Access)
- Vice-President (Welfare)
- Vice-President (Liberation and Equality)
The role review, spearheaded by the SU President for 2021-2022, Anvee Bhutani, was carried out because sabbatical positions had not been scrutinised since the 1990s. It also aimed to tackle an alleged workload discrepancy between sabbatical roles and meet the changing nature of the student body.
Notable changes are the division of Education and Access responsibilities between the designated Undergraduate and Postgraduate roles, and the replacement of VP Charities and Community with VP Activities and Community.
The role review proposal document, seen by Cherwell, stated that VP Charities and Community didn’t work directly with charities, and only supported RAG (Raise and Give). It consequently held that the position would be better suited to the organisation of activities.
Another change is the designation of an entire sabbatical role to Welfare. While the SU acknowledges the importance of student welfare, current team members have raised concerns that this may be too much responsibility to put on one officer, and that there is a risk of Welfare suffering if the workload isn’t shared.
The final change is the replacement of VP Women with VP Liberation and Equalities, which the role review suggested for inclusivity reasons. However, this has also sparked internal controversy and fears for the representation of women* at Oxford University.
The role of President is the only position which the role review argued against changing, stating “It is good to have a central point of contact administratively,” before adding “The remit can be better defined but having them as the “floater” sabb is good”.
Bhutani’s team first proposed this role review in Week 3 of Hilary Term 2022, opening a six month inquiry period, after which the changes were approved by the SU Trustee Board and former CEO.
However, some members of the current sabbatical team were not told about these changes until July 2022 when they took up their positions, causing surprise and uncertainty about how handover will look next year.
Meanwhile, the SU has not yet widely advertised the role change, despite the next cohort’s need to start planning their election campaigns. When contacted by Cherwell, the SU said that details of the role changes had been included in a Freshers’ Guide and made available in the minutes and agenda of Student Council meetings last year. However, many students in second and third year do not appear to have been reached by this information
Last week, it was proposed that the role changes would be re-submitted to Student Council this term, to be voted on by this year’s cohort. However, this decision has been overturned, with the SU now confirming to Cherwell that the review has passed and won’t be returning to Council. An inaccuracy of the minutes from Hilary Term 2022 caused this confusion, but has now been amended. This role review passed with a total of 11 votes, 9 in favour and 2 against.
Currently, sabbatical officers at the Oxford Student Union have a salary of £25,642 per year, having just seen a 3% increase in line with inflation.
Anvee Bhutani, President of Oxford SU 21-22, commented: “Changing the Sabbatical Officer portfolios was a daunting and time-consuming process but I’m glad I was able to make it happen during my Presidency and I know it will allow the SU to better represent students for years to come. I’m very grateful for the hundreds of people – including JCR and MCR Presidents, Campaign Chairs, University staff and many more – who took part in the consultation and feedback process as we conducted this review. The new roles cement the contemporary priorities of the Oxford community and allow us to best cater to the change we hope to achieve.”
*The term women includes transgender, intersex, nonbinary and gender expansive people, whose interests are all represented by VP Women
Editorial note: This article was updated between 10th and 12th November to remove one comment at the request of the person who made the statement and to replace it with other, previously unused student comments.