“Why do I need to provide proof that I’m in an unstable situation?”
This is the question most of the students we spoke to landed on. In this case, it came from a student reflecting on the time our university asked her for evidence of a stillbirth and the accompanying trauma as “proof” of exceptional circumstances.
When the University of York announced they would be significantly rolling back self-certification provisions from those established and appreciated during Covid, we knew we had to push for change – as so many students were upset and downright angry at the roll back.
Often when it comes to academic representation, students’ unions fall into a trap – they almost always rely on the jargon and data-driven analysis that is so pervasive in academia to drive their message. The result is a bland, inaccessible, emotionless style of campaigning that leaves the majority of students out of the conversation.
We did not want to take this route, especially on an issue that elicited such a visceral and passionate response from so many.
So after the usual methods of explaining our case to various academic committees did not result in the changes we needed, we opted for a different approach. We wanted to make change, and doing so required some creative campaigning.
In the end, our approach blended traditional storytelling with radically transparent and disruptive online action.
The result was the largest single-issue mobilisation in our SU’s history – a massive u-turn from our university.
Academic policy is by nature impenetrable. Unless you design academic policy or administer it, chances are you, and students alike, won’t fully understand it, let alone want to engage in the whole complicated, bureaucratic process.
This is seen as a major problem by SUs looking to organise students on academic issues. After all, how can you bring people together if there is no shared understanding of the situation?
The reality is you don’t need to build expertise to build awareness. We chose to relegate academic terminology and data and focus on what students actually wanted to know – how they will be affected, what we’re doing about it, and how they can help.
Our messaging was simple and clear-cut, condensing the subject of endless committee papers into just nine bullet points.
Campaigning communication should speak the language of students and play to a union’s strength rather than speaking the language of professors and university bureaucrats. It’s not extensive research methods we needed, but a campaign that clearly and quickly shared the authentic feelings of our students.
There was no mention of Student Support Plans, technical differences between deferrals and extensions, or explainers on interactions between Disability Services and academic departments. We just summarised the bottom-line – everyone would be worse off and it would disproportionately affect disabled, menstruating, international and low-income students, to name a few.
Adding a dash of anger
Every experienced campaigner understands that to get people moving, you should not only give them a reason to, but also the emotion to stand up and act.
When the university said they had consulted the students’ union for the changes made, we made our letters to them formally opposing these plans public. When the university said the majority of students accepted restrictions should be imposed, we polled students and published the results online. And when a staff leader told us that we “should just accept that [they] knew better than us”, we made the quote front-and-centre in our campaign.
Students expect their student representatives to be their voice at the university. When that voice is dismissed and so flagrantly, this stirs anger. But how can we translate this anger into action?
We sustained this frustration by encouraging individuals to share their stories on this issue. A flurry of exchanges erupted from this with students sharing their personal circumstances through comments, direct messaging and reposts – some of them, like the story above, were absolutely shocking.
Most were expressing exasperation at a system that simply was not working for them and putting a face to nameless pieces of data used by the university. Our firestarter sparked conversations between students and even staff.
Those that may not have understood the repercussions of the new policy could now see it right in front of them, from their friends or their coursemates.
Committees work under the assumption that all decisions they make are final and anonymous. Students’ unions get their strength from opening up these conversations and inviting scrutiny. It’s relatively easy to ignore a student officer in a close-door meeting, but it’s a lot harder to ignore thousands. To get our voice heard, disruption is key.
We engaged students directly in that disruption. As an outlet for them to use, we set up an online page. For every signature the page garnered, each member of the committee responsible and their personal assistants automatically received a personally addressed and signed email from the student signing.
Our campaign’s purpose was reflected in its name, “Save Our Selfs” (pun intended). If students wanted change, they would have to make it happen themselves.
In under 48 hours, students sent upwards of 20,000 letters to targets. These were impossible to ignore. The letters were accusatory in tone and also editable, allowing students to share their stories directly with the campaign’s targets. Their intention was to use student anger to create an equally strong feeling of shame in the receiver.
We timed our launch to coincide with a common assessment period. The targets were expected to be planning at that time for both exams delivery and any potential marking boycott. All attention though was diverted to an endless stream of emails, forcing a response from university leadership.
“Bloody incredible. As a first-year, this has shown me the power of us as students.” “This might actually save my degree, thank you so much.” “Thanks for the campaign – the restrictions are a disaster as a type 1 diabetic.”
These are some of the comments we received after we announced the university was immediately reviewing not only the entire self-certification system for this term, but also its Student Support Plan and Exceptional Circumstances policies.
Academic representation doesn’t have to be boring. If our campaign has shown anything it is that there is a demand for better academic provisions and students can mobilise collectively and also in very personal ways. We just have to give them the tools to.