Every now and then officer portfolios get a little bit tired

Back in May I wrote about byelaws and noted that doing so may have been somewhat flawed.

A pandemic may not be the best moment to be thinking about such things within students’ unions. My timing here was even worse than my attempts to dance to Bonnie Tyler towards the end of a wedding reception.

Not enough people want to talk governance at the best of times and my assumption was that even fewer would want to talk governance at the worst of times.

The last 5 months have emphasised the tenacity, courage and brilliance of the students’ union sector. officers and staff members are not only carrying out core work for their members, they are still casting a critical eye over their processes and power structures. There’s no sign of stopping them.

Almost a year ago I released research into democratic forums within students’ unions. This explained, for example, who had a council or a referendum, a jury or a set of zonal committees. We also looked at the full-time officers within those same unions, and I’m pleased to be able to offer that to the sector today.

I need you more than ever

I believe that even the best crafted set of student officer portfolios can be relevant for about 5 years. Things change so quickly in terms of sector requirements, university strategies and the demographic of the student body that regularly considering the focus of their leaders and representatives is a reasonable thing to do.

One of the first questions is often “what do other unions have?” and I’m hoping that the research will provide swift answers to that. The next questions are more important. Unions should be asking their members how they define themselves and, by extension, how they want their representatives to reflect this.

Work has been done by some SUs to discover that students principally associate with a faculty rather than a pastime and have shifted to having VPs for Science and Engineering rather than Sports and Societies. Do the portfolio of officers you have reflect how students experience their university life? Do they address a need for the membership?

I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark

As well as having a constituency of students with associated issues (on Welfare or Citizenship, for example) thought also needs to be given to where the officers will take these views and problems.

Many years ago I was a Union Development Officer, essentially with responsibility for volunteering initiatives and non-academic development of students. Within the union this made loads of sense – we had several thousand volunteers and the need to set up training and accreditation programmes. The issue was that while internal facing work was great, I had nowhere to lobby.

There was no volunteering committee in the university, our Education officer was part of the relevant discussions on student development and the VP Sports and Societies dealt with those areas. I was a voice for students without anyone to speak to.

Officers need avenues within the institution to get the opinions of those they represent across, so considering where power and decisions lie in the university is important.

We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks

Students’ Unions are political and campaigning organisations and officers should be able to reflect the desires of their student body to undertake this work. In part, this requires democratic processes that allow for meaningful mandates but also job descriptions must be designed in such a way that allows for flexibility.

They should not restrain officers with a set of specific rules and expectations. Elected officer manifestos reflect a desire of the student body as much as a motion from Student Council. Officer roles need to be able to respond to emerging trends and, crucially, stop doing work as much as take new things on. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need a “VP Tedious Culture War”, but if everyone is too busy writing their compulsory blogs and spending their required time on an empty satellite campus that they can’t ever respond to the immediate issues, there may be something to address.

Together we can take it to the end of the line

As ever with reviews it is important to start with an open mind and an acceptance that before something new can begin, the old has to stop. Just because it’s always been called VP Education doesn’t mean it should be the case in the future. Are three officers spending 80% of their time doing administration more effective than one dedicating their day to representation and activism?

I hope this research allows SUs to remain relevant, innovative and courageous in their officer teams and keep winning for students.

Read more:

Download: SU Officer Role Research Nick Smith Consulting

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