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USG constitutional amendments: A much-needed change?

Last November 15, the Legislative Assembly (LA), through a unanimous vote, approved a set of amendments to the University Student Government (USG) constitution. Legislators were in high spirits; the passed resolutions were the result of almost a month of grueling deliberations.

But this is not yet the end of the process; the student body will need to decide whether they are up for these changes. A plebiscite, set to take place during the 2020 General Elections (GE), will decide the constitution’s fate.

What change?

The amendments called for some long overdue changes. Clauses on the Office of the Ombudsman, which was terminated in 2013 by the LA for not being defined in the 2009 constitution, will finally be added. Also finally getting its due is the Laguna Campus Student Government (LCSG), which has operated for years but has never been officially defined in the charter, since the University’s Manila campus only merged with the Laguna campus in 2013—four years after the constitution was ratified. Other minor changes include an “improved legislative procedure” and updates to the Commission on Audit manual.

Yet these are not all original ideas. In fact, adding the Ombudsman and the LCSG was already on the table as early as 2013, when then USG President Migi Moreno put forward Operation REFOCUS, his bid to address the perceived shortcomings of the 2009 constitution. The changes proposed at the time would have fundamentally reshaped the workings of the USG, redefining roles and responsibilities of some offices, and reducing the number of elected positions by almost a third.

The Executive Board (EB) would have been reduced to just three seats: the President, the Executive Vice President, and the Treasurer. The current LA planned to do something similar—remove the Vice President for External Affairs seat and transfer those responsibilities to the President. However, the assembly shot down the idea, believing it would burden the President.

Under Operation REFOCUS, the batch and college government units would have also been heavily restructured, allowing for judiciary and legislative functions to exist in lower seats, similar to how local governments in the Philippines have regional trial courts and city councils, for example. Current legislators pushed for similar changes, hoping to grant batch governments greater “local autonomy”, but these plans, too, were shelved.

Despite how ambitious Operation REFOCUS was, it ultimately failed. In the 2014 plebiscite, only 8.79 percent of the student body actually participated. It was not very clear at the time why students seemed apathetic to the revisions, though it seemed that most students were simply uninformed about what the planned changes were, or that there were even planned changes to begin with.

The current USG must have also taken notes from this incident; online posts about the 2020 plebiscite were already making rounds while the LA resolutions were still being deliberated.



Lack of identity

What the new revisions do not cover—which past iterations of the constitution have also tried and failed to do—is to define the USG’s identity beyond simply being the “democratic representative body of the students”. Though it may seem strange to think how a student government could be having an identity crisis, it was very much the concern of student leaders under the Student Council (SC), the USG’s precursor, when they first initiated Operation: Revamp, a restructuring of the student government, in 2003.

The EB at the time deliberated on the various problems that plagued their system. Some of these issues, which were later compiled in a report, included the “lack of quality and long-term plans”, and a “lack of good governance within the SC”.

The report also noted that students had trouble differentiating the SC from the Council of Student Organizations (CSO) since “both provide the same things”—an “endless supply of activities” for students. It’s not hard to see this overlap, even until today. Both the CSO and the USG still hold fundraising activities, organize bazaars, and even host concerts.

Because of these concerns, they proposed that the student government should focus on addressing student welfare and institutionalizing programs, instead of organizing activities and short-term projects—responsibilities that they argued belonged under CSO.

A proposed 2004 USG Constitution, drafted by then SC President Saint Anthony Tiu, was born from these discussions. The draft incorporated the changes that the EB at the time wanted, while also emphasizing the idea of having checks and balances within the student government through three co-equal branches, namely the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branch.

It would take another four years, another generation of student leaders, and two plebiscite attempts to make the USG a reality. They first tried, and failed, in October 2008, with only 32 percent of the student population lending their vote. Their second attempt, which coincided with the 2009 GE, was more successful.

What lies ahead

Fast forward to today, and another generation of student leaders is trying their hand at amending the constitution, but unlike their predecessors, their focus seems to be not on repairing a broken system, but plugging holes in a working one.

The USG is still hampered by its bloated structure, and until today, students arguably still do not understand what exactly it is the USG does. While recent USG-led events have focused on social concerns like mental health and gender equality—advocacy-driven programs, like what the original proponents wanted—student organizations and even political parties have also begun to do the same, once again blurring distinctions.

Whether this plebiscite will succeed remains uncertain. Apart from the 2019 Special Elections, which saw a surprisingly high turnout, the USG has struggled for years to get students to vote, even during GE. Convincing them to participate in the plebiscite and helping them understand what it is they are voting for will be a different matter.

It falls to the student body, the ultimate arbiter in the upcoming plebiscite, to assess if these amendments are sufficient. As badly needed as some of these changes are, only time will tell if a new constitution will really bring about a better, more responsive USG—one with a clear identity and vision, as was originally intended all those years ago.

By Frank Santiago

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