Reps aren’t the problem, our outdated fixation with representative democracy is.
A culture of community organising, horizontalism and critical engagement with pedagogy is having a genuine impact at Sheffield. Ditch the spreadsheet and pick up your Alinsky.
We launched a fundamental review of academic representation in 2017/18 in partnership with the university. The result was a system based around community organising, anchored in Mike Neary’s concept of “students’ as producers”. We have significantly increased engagement, we have hugely improved the diversity of students engaging and it appears that our work has had an impact on improving student satisfaction both in the SU and across student experience.
Volunteers not elections
This removes the single biggest barrier to engagement that students told us about, the focus instead moved on to completing the training to confirm your place as a rep. Diversity of reps has improved markedly, with the rep cohort now broadly matching the demography of our students. This also allows a shift in the conversation to ‘what would happen if every student wanted to be a rep?’ and freed up significant time in busy workloads as complex election processes were no longer needed.
You can’t have too many reps
2 reps per level, per programme… why? On large programmes students told us that, with only two of them, it was impossible to talk to all of their coursemates. We are broadly looking to get a ratio of 1:15 reps to students on a programme. The aim being that all we are asking for is a rep to speak to a friendship group, not a lecture theatre.
On big programmes that means they can share the load of responsibilities and follow their interests while working as a team (only two of them need to go to the meeting after they’ve had a chat).
Base it in the pedagogy
Moving away from arbitrary targets has also allowed departments to design structures based on the way that their learning and teaching operates. Science students often like to see a rep per lab group, medics are working on having one per placement location and level, our system encourages this, because it makes sense.
Not just the transactional
Students want small transactional issues dealt with, and staff are sick of them using committee meetings to raise them. We’ve trained reps and employed a student organiser within each faculty to get these dealt with quickly and outside of meetings. Just email the staff contact about the heating in the lecture theatre, then the committee meeting is free for curriculum design and rethinking assessment.
Making things better, not boring processes
Ditching elections has freed up significant time to do more interesting stuff. We can solve the transactional problems and open up new opportunities for students to have their say on their experience. Also, telling staff that we are going to reduce their administrative burden with a new system was a great way to get them to engage.
Let reps shape their experience
Reps volunteer for a variety of reasons and with the hope of achieving a variety of things, great. We have a core training programme online to ensure that they understand how things work and then they are free to work with their coursemates and pursue objectives as they wish.
To back this up we have an additional programme of “masterclasses” themed are “skills”, “knowledge” and “campaigning”. All of these are open to all reps to attend as many or as few as they wish.
If we really believe in our students we need to let go of the systems and the structures and genuinely empower them, with SUs putting their time and effort into whatever it is that the students say will make improve their experience.