May 14, 2012

How hard is it to support pregnant students?

I don't think I've ever been as disgusted with Warwick SU's Union Council as I am now. And I've been a student politic hack of some stripe or another for quite some time now.

The matter at hand was the renewal of a somewhat innocuous policy calling upon the Students' Union to support pregnant students in terms of advising on options, finances etc. The original policy also called for the creation of a pregnant students' fund - the renewal asks student representatives to lobby the University for such a fund.

It's the kind of policy that normally breezes through Council. We'd already had an inevitably heated discussion over whether or not to express solidarity with Balfour Bettie workers on campus (due to the company's rather nasty habit of blacklisting employees involved in Union activities or legal action over health and safety) and over the best way to support Leamington's Community Centre (incidentally, you can petition to save Bath Place here!)

But what could possibly be problematic about supporting pregnant students?

Everything, apparently. A fierce debate erupted as various men (and yes, they were all men, and included several sabbatical officers who I thought knew better) came up with the most bizarre problems with the motion. They argued that the motion contained too many wishy-washy statements of belief rather than actual content. Then they went for the content. They claimed it might detract from the student hardship fund. They imagined it might catalyse a chain reaction in which the student hardship fund was eventually scrapped entirely.

The Union's only female sabbatical officer pointed out the gendered nature of the debate, arguing that men shouldn't necessarily be making these decisions for women. Cue a series of "hilarious" comments along the lines of "I may be a man, and know nothing about women, but I do know about finance. Don't worry, it's a joke".

Funnily enough, there may well have been as many women speaking on this issue as had spoken on anything else all night.

The travesty ended in a tightly contested vote in which the vast majority of women on Council voted for the motion and the vast majority of men voted against. The result was a tie, in part because another body of men abstained (there were more men than women in the room). In a tight re-vote, 17 councillors voted in favour of the motion, and 15 against.

I don't see how anyone can possibly claim that this wasn't a gendered issue. It predominantly affects women. It divided the room on gendered lines in a way I've rarely seen. And if the Union can so easily "find money" for supporting the national demonstration against fees and cuts later this year - as it should! - then it can surely find the resources necessary to lobby the University in support of some of the most vulnerable students.

I simply don't understand how people could regard this as a purely "financial" issue. It's not: it's about supporting vulnerable students in a society centred around the structural oppression of women: a society that moreover diminishes the cultural capital and importance of parenthood. And it clearly impacts women disproportionately because the vast amount of people who get pregnant are women.

Now, I don't mean to say pregnancy directly affects all women. I don't have a womb. I will never be able to get pregnant. And yet it was pretty damn clear to me that my vote as a councillor should be made in solidarity with my sisters. And if the men in the room who regarded the issue as relatively unimportant couldn't bring themselves to vote for the motion in solidarity with the women, they could have at least had the decency to abstain.

Following the vote, a male sabbatical officer asked why the men in the room were being discriminated against. I'm sorry, but - no wait, I'm not freakin' sorry. I don't see how it could be any more obvious that this is a gendered issue. The motion almost fell because more men get elected to democratic bodies than women. Under such circumstance, isn't it about time that most the guys present checked their male privilege and shut up for a change?

Edit: A response from a number of sabbatical officers is available in the comments section below. Minutes of the meeting are available here. There is an audio recording here. The debate begins at around ‎2:23:20.


- 4 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. George

    My comment was actually prefaced with ‘What I’m about to say is a joke” rather than followed by the statement. This was because I knew it was not a ‘right’ thing to say and wanted to make it quite clear that it wasn’t something I actually believed – I said it to reflect my opinion that it was unfair to imply that a man could not have a view on this issue.
    I also really don’t think this is as big an issue as you, here, and other people, elsewhere, on both sides of the debate have made out. Most of us who opposed the motion did so from purely practical perspectives, rather than anything to do with the concept of the motion itself. It passed, and Im completely OK with that – what’s the point in having a council if every decision made is going to be a clear majority?

    15 May 2012, 12:13

  2. Matthew

    Hi Ruth,

    I hope you got my facebook message about chatting through my position on the strategies put in place to support some of our most vulnerable students, and I am happy to clarify that for anyone else who is interested. I can’t speak for anyone else, and they can’t speak for me. This is what I was questioning at council – I heard comments which heavily implied that any male opposing the motion was automatically a sexist. And I think that was unfair. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a staunch defender of women’s rights and other minority students. For example, I am currently working with Warwick Pride to ensure that they are not discriminated against in the upcoming Higher Education Achievement Report. I am also very proud that Warwick SU will have 3 female sabbs next year (and more in the coming years I hope!)

    Here are my reasons for changing from supporting the strategy outlined in the policy before the meeting, to opposing it in the meeting after hearing the debate.

    - We heard how pregnant students in financial-need have access to the University’s Hardship Fund and have successfully applied to it in the past.
    - That pregnant students are fully entitled to apply for the grant.
    - That such a request is only made once every 2 or 3 years (based on professional advice from the Advice Centre).

    These points made me feel that ringfencing an amount of money for one specific demographic, when it is only accessed rarely, seems to be at strategic mistake at this point in time. I drew this conclusion based on the knowledge that charitable institutions like the SU and the University absorbed remaining monies from funds into their financial bottom line. In other words, if the money was ringfenced and not spent, it could be taken away from other students needed to access the Hardship fund and merely absorb it into the University’s coffers. This is why I felt that at this time, a ring fenced fund is not the way to go.

    However, there are 3 problems that are clear:
    - We need to try and get the process of applying sped up for students in need.
    - We need to be getting the University to proactively alert students to who is eligible for a Hardship Grant. If pregnant students don’t know about it, this is a massive problem.
    - If, through better awareness there is an increase in the amount of pregnant students accessing the fund, then perhaps a ringfenced fund is a better option.

    As I hope you and others will see, my opposition was strategic. If I self-defined as a woman, would you find this position sexist (and no-one has ever asked me how I self-define I hasten to add!)? Of course we should support pregnant students, and I’m interested in finding the best way possible.

    Anyway I have waffled on for far too long, I welcome any criticism of my strategic position but think criticism of my character is unjustified in this instance.

    Yours respectfully,

    Matt

    16 May 2012, 01:43

  3. Liam

    To preface my response: I missed the debate and have not read the minutes. However, the gender argument falls down IMO.

    The men in the room vote not as individuals, but as representatives of sections of the university. That means they represent men and women, postgrads and undergrads, and so on. It’s almost like saying that white people shouldn’t vote on anti-discrimination laws because they were designed to prevent prejudice of non-whites. Of course, there are differences as well as parallels in that comparison. However, the point is thematic – not comprehensive.

    You are right to point out the divisions between men and women in the room. Perhaps this requires more education regarding such issues, in particular female-gender-specific ones. What it certainly does not require is the prohibition of male voting on the issue.

    16 May 2012, 01:58

  4. Phil

    If pregnant women are able to successfully apply to the hardship fund I don’t understand why a separate fund needs to be set up, especially when it takes from the main body of the hardship fund as this just suggests a need to rank hardship issues by importance. A centrally organised fund which deals with all issues on a case by case basis, assuming the university is not going to directly discriminate against pregnant students, is an adequate way of allocating necessary money to pregnant students. It appears that the main reason people have issue with the policy (other than increased bureaucracy) is that money which is ring-fenced for pregnant students and is then not used in that year will be absorbed into the university and not the hardship fund just meaning that there is less money for everyone, including pregnant students, who need it.

    My real question is why was this introduced in the first place? Are there many cases of pregnant students who apply to the hardship fund and are turned away? Is the best solution to this problem, if this is a problem which actually exists, to create a new fund with money from the hardship fund?

    I think the intentions of this policy are very good in that they are highlighting a very important issue that affects pregnant students but it seems this policy could in fact hinder rather than help pregnant students and others. For example, let’s pretend the hardship fund has £10000 in it and we ring-fence £1000 for pregnant students. In the eventuality that there are no pregnant student claimants that year then that £1000 will go back to the university whereas if it had been in the hardship fund it would more likely have been given to someone who needs it. Now let’s assume that there are a high number of pregnant student claimants in one year that amount to a monetary value of £1,400. If we have a separate fund would the university not then say that only £1000 can be claimed as the allocated fund would be depleted? If the fund had remained centralised and pregnant students had just claimed from the hardship fund then it is far more likely their claim would be successful as they are claiming £1,400 from a pot of £10,000 rather than a pot of £1,000. In this case the union would have to make it clear that x amount of money is ring-fenced but it may even need to be topped up if you have a year with a high number of pregnant student applicants, and if the hardship fund has already been allocated then this is impossible to do?

    I won’t engage with the debate about who should be able to vote on this issue or not or what was said in the union council meeting, but I am a bit worried that people’s judgement about the specific fiscal side of the debate has been clouded by the fact that the issue itself is gendered.

    I think Matt Rogers identified two key things that the union need to implement if pregnant students aren’t receiving the benefits they are/could be entitled to:

    “We need to try and get the process of applying sped up for students in need.
    We need to be getting the University to proactively alert students to who is eligible for a Hardship Grant. If pregnant students don’t know about it, this is a massive problem.”

    I think these two forms of action could have been done without lobbying for the creation of a separate fund.

    16 May 2012, 10:11


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