SU Officers past and present can attest to the fact that weeks go by in this job before you realise you've failed to effectively communicate any work you're doing to those you represent. Combine this with a perpetual problem I face in trying to describe what my role actually entails, and you've got a challenge when it comes to closing the feedback loop. So let's give it a go.
The SU's Cause
Over the past 18 months, The SU has undergone some strategy work that endeavoured to find our 'Cause' - our core purpose of existence. We did lots of workshops and exercises involving students and officers to draw out what The SU looked like when it functioned at its best, and what stuff The SU does that we should stop doing. The key themes that emerged from the process of identifying our core purpose were:
- Providing the opportunity for students to come together
- That students can and want to shape communities they are part of for the better
- The SU is not a building it is a body of students
As such, lots of my time is spent in "Cause strategy group" meetings with senior SU managers to talk about how we: can develop these ideas with students and embed this Cause in all we do; reimagine how students can easily input into the direction of the union; can be facilitating the talented, knowledgeable and driven student body in their group activity and campaigning endeavours.
One of the most recent things we did in this area is through our first ‘SUmmit’ event. These are hallmark student engagement events The SU will be running each semester to allow us to come together and deep-dive into a particular student issue, using collective intelligence to solve complex problems. Last week’s one was about the climate emergency and it was fantastic to sit down with students who were passionate about tackling this pressing issue, and really start thinking about what our expectations were of the University when it comes to cutting down on emissions, single use plastics and other activity that harms the environment. I hope to do the next SUmmit about mental health, so watch this space.
Top Ten Issues
Lots of time during the summer was spent trawling through realms of existing evidence of student opinion on a vast array of topics in order to narrow it down to 10 'priority issues' we would lobby the University on this year. This is the 10th year we've had a "Top Ten" and it's a chance for us to focus in on 10 areas of work where the University have power and jurisdiction over them. It's important to note that this does not preclude work on any other issues. For example, though Mental Health is not included explicitly in this year's Top Ten it doesn't mean we don't do work on it. Sometimes, the Top Ten is a chance to shine the light on an issue that would not normally get such high profile coverage. This year's issue about the University's business travel provider, a major concern for postgraduate students, is an example of this. You can see the full list here. With our "Cause" work in mind (reimagining our purpose as an SU and moving students from consumers of services to active citizens in their SU communities), it'll be interesting to see how this Top Ten work develops each year, especially its intersection with our new 'SUmmit' meetings and enshrining even more student engagement and opinion in the process.
Last year, after many meetings whereby Jack (the previous Education Officer) and I noticed a lot of ad-hoc decisions about accommodation being made, we managed to successfully lobby for the University to commit to an Accommodation Strategy.
The strategy was important because of a few things: 1) the long term vision would prevent last minute ad-hoc decisions being made, 2) it would require the University to commit to a particular approach when dealing with accommodation decisions such as prioritising affordability, and 3) strategies are signed off by the University’s governing body and therefore governors can hold the executive to account on its content.
The start of these accommodation working group meetings went well with lengthy discussions about affordability, and the current vs future student demand. We drew stats in from accommodation services and student services and looked at best practice from other institutions such as this scheme at Kings College London.
However, I started to become worried that the accommodation strategy was a project driven only by The SU, despite the fact that the University would have to commit serious time and effort to it as it would need to be signed-off by Council. Despite committing to developing a strategy, it wasn’t clear to me whether the Uni were actually invested. Since then, we’ve made an effort to ensure the Uni are taking it as seriously as they should and are hopeful that by 2020 academic year, we’ll have an accommodation strategy that outlines the long term direction of accommodation provision at this Uni.
Thankfully, the buses have been remarkably improved so far this year and that’s due to the University’s discussions with First over the summer, with increasing pressure from The SU in highlighting this as a business critical issue that severely impacts student experience when it goes wrong. The thing to keep an eye on will be the quality of service after the sale of the First West of England bus division, and also how things progress into the second semester.
Student complaints and disciplinary processes
A significant chunk of time over the summer was spent working with the Uni in trawling through their dignity and respect policies and procedures and editing regulation 7 and 8 as part of a student complaints procedure overhaul. The old policies and procedures that kicked into action when students were either reporting an incident or an alleged perpetrator of an incident, and when students were complaining about an aspect of University provision, were essentially not fit for purpose. They were very bureaucratic, complex to follow and did not effectively support students going through them.
Alisha and I had been banging on about the need to overhaul these policies and procedures since the launch of the #NeverOk campaign when we were Freshers’ Week Event Mangers in 2017. It’s all been done back to front; we launched a visual campaign without having a proper place for students to report incidents of harassment, and then we launched report and support without the robust policies and procedures in place. But, thankfully after umpteen different iterations and the hard work of the Uni team, the new policies and procedures look significantly better and will support students better who go through them. Crucially, the team are also reviewing and refreshing based on experience so improvements will keep happening.
The key now – as a governor of the University – is to see if I can make sure the University’s governing body has proper oversight of this issue as it’s a significant concern nationally. Historically, clunky statistics about the cases of discipline and student complaints go to “Council, Senate & Students’ Union” committee which is a committee that looks at student experience but is a bit crap (currently trying to reform it). The minutes of this meeting – not the papers themselves – then to go Council. I’m going to try and make sure a detailed report goes straight to Council each year at least which includes a ‘lessons learned’ section from when cases have gone wrong or students have been let down.
Women in Leadership work
Over the summer, I worked on launching the Rise Up podcast which is a podcast that aims to empower women to lead. It builds on the success of last year’s Women in Leadership conference as I wanted students to have the opportunity to listen to women talking about their leadership journeys without having to attend a particular conference on a particular day. The podcast currently has 3 episodes out and if you search “Rise Up” on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify you should be able to find it.
I also want to do the Women in Leadership conference again this academic year which I’m starting planning now and will be supported by funding from Santander. I ran a couple of Women in Leadership sessions at the Academic Rep Conference this year which was brilliant, and we even had a couple of men students sit in as they wanted to learn how to support their women colleagues.
Last week, of the two days I had in the office due to being at a conference and taking some TOIL, I had to drop everything that was in my calendar because on Tuesday strikes were announced. The staff member that helps us do our democratic processes such as referendum also had his last day in the office on Friday so there was a lot to handover and do! I collated a load of information together for an FAQ on The SU website, we got approval from The SU’s trustee board for a referendum to ask students if they want The SU to support the strike or not, email students notice of a referendum and organised a strike debate on Thursday of this week. I met with the Chair of Bath’s UCU branch to ensure communication between us, and made calls to senior management to touch base. Voting in the referendum will open on Friday 15th November at midday and close at midday on Wednesday the 20th.
The same staff member who left last week is also integral in our General Election planning so this week is about making sure all of those plans and momentum continue in their absence. Three of the officer team are going to oversee the strikes and the other three are going to oversee general election plans. We will be doing ‘register to vote’ stalls again with doughnuts, we’ll be hosting hustings where students can come and ask prospective parliamentary candidates questions, and doing all we can on comms to make sure that those that register turn out to vote on polling day – whether they be at home home or at Uni.
As a governor of the University, I also sit on the University’s Finance Committee which looks at the University’s finances, Remuneration Committee which sets the pay of senior designated staff, Nominations Committee which appoints people to the Uni’s governing body and the Council Effectiveness Review Steering Group which was tasked with implementing governance reform after Glexit. I have also recently been asked to sit on the University’s Buildings Board which looks at how we build buildings, sustainability, cost vs quality and crucially for me – the role of student engagement in designing the buildings to ensure they serve the University community properly. Brief updates on these committees:
- I’ve continued to close the knowledge gap between members of Council and the experience of students on the ground. I’ve posed questions about student numbers, accommodation problems, disabled students support, teaching excellence, buses and much more.
- We’ve done a lot of scrutinising of the numbers of the University’s new capital projects; the Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems and the new School of Management Building. We also recently received the University’s annual accounts.
- This has been really interesting as one of the governance reform recommendations was that I should sit on this group. It’s been interesting to understand the way the old system operated, and identify areas to make the process of setting senior pay much more transparent and robust.
- I’ve been banging on about diversifying Council since I came into this role. This year we recruited and appointed not only a new Chair of Council but also a number of lay members too. Though the Council does not do well when it comes to ethnic diversity, we’ve done much better in this round of appointments with regards to gender and a more diverse range of professional backgrounds to provide the right expertise that the Uni needs.
Council Effectiveness Review Steering Group
- I had the first meeting of this group in my first week as President, and last month we officially disbanded it as its work had finished. We were tasked with considering the 60+ recommendations in the Halpin Review that was commissioned after Glexit, and recommended them to Council to implement. These ranged from student and staff representation on the University’s Remuneration Committee, reducing the size of Council from 26 to 21, to introducing a new Head of Strategic Governance. The governance of our Uni is significantly stronger and more robust thanks to the work of this group and it was a pleasure to be a part of.
Sorry this blog post has been so long, but I thought it would be the best way to fill you all in on my work. There’s a tonne of miscellaneous stuff that’s also ticking over in my role – Uni’s review on graduations, the sustainability of the EDI work at the Uni, the creation of the University’s new strategy etc etc – but these are some of the headlines. If you made it to the end of the blog, congratulations!