A single point of failure – that fails students

In recent months I have found myself repeatedly saying “single point of failure” while reviewing our representative work in preparation for our new strategic plan.

SUs are supposed to be great because they change, evolve and ask difficult questions – so we should ask this one – is democracy throughout an SU more important than the failure of a SU to effectively represent students?

A single point of failure is potential risk posed by a flaw in the design, implementation or configuration of a circuit or system in which one fault or malfunction causes an entire system to stop operating. In other words, if one thing breaks, it all goes down. IT people worry about these all the time for obvious reasons. I’m not sure SU people do.

Too many times in the course of my SU career, an SU’s reputation or its ability to represent and hold the university to account has been reduced because of an “elected” course rep. Often such an “elected” course rep has less than 5% of the vote and are weak, disengaged or just incapable of being an effective rep – regardless of how much training, coaching or support they receive.

They are also deemed somewhat “untouchable” as they have been elected into place – students do not want to, or have the inkling to, complain about something that they see no value in and so the rep remains in position. When was the last time you heard of a course rep that was “no-confidenced”?

Machine politics

We have big machines to step in and help when an issue is highlighted: Student Leaders, staff structures, meeting structures, online voting mechanisms, VC meetings, all of which are packaged up in trusted processes to address the student issues that are raised. But if nothing is passed into this structure then it all falls down – and the SU “machine” is oblivious to help a cohort of members on a course until it is too late.

That’s the scenario unless a student steps outside the “representation model” and acts upon their own and visits our Advice Centre, although this takes a concerted effort from a student to do so. And they probably need to be having a crisis to get there – too late for many. So often, the SU representative model falls down where there is only one course rep on a course, or several disengaged reps. This is a classic single point of failure.

We need to think about this and take it seriously, because a single point of failure can have a detrimental impact on the academic student experience of our members – and it calls into question the validity and effectiveness of an SU to a university.

Threats and opportunities

In the modern HE climate, universities are increasingly reaching out to students themselves for feedback and the student voice; our single point of failure increasingly means that university hierarchy are looking to other avenues for feedback from their students as the reps. This is a huge strategic risk to the effective funding of SUs, as funds may be diverted to other more effective “customer” focused feedback mechanisms to ensure that the “Student Voice” is heard.

After recent visits to other countries to see how SUs works, including the Wonkhe SUs trip to the Baltics, SUs there are just as democratic – but in a very different way. Their councils are fully elected in cross-campus elections, and they then recruit and select reps to sit on university committees, and support much bigger academic societies. It’s a world away from our model, but still democratic where it needs to be and accountable where it matters. Surely there are there lessons we can learn to make our SUs more effective at representation?

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